Censorship in Texas: Ellen Hopkins and the Humble, TX Teen Lit Fest

August 17, 2010

A photograph of Ellen Hopkins, author of free-verse novels for young adults.

I’m just now hearing about this, but last Tuesday, Ellen Hopkins wrote a blog post about being uninvited from the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas. (I’m having trouble finding official information about the event; there seems to be a Facebook page and a Blogspot account, but neither have been updated recently.)

Hopkins had done high school visits in the area before and they’d gone well, but when a middle school librarian saw Hopkins would be at Teen Lit Fest, she went to some parents and then all of them went to the superintendent to ask that Hopkins be uninvited. The superintendent, Guy Sconzo, hadn’t read any of her books but agreed to remove her from the program. When other area librarians wrote to him in protest, he responded that he’d relied on the librarian’s judgement and that there were plenty of other authors they could invite–too many to ever have them all! Hopkins responded to this on her blog:

I am not just another author. I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.

That is what censors fear. The truth. Mr. Sconzo doesn’t “want to jeopardize any possible negative reaction [sic] with what has been to date completely positive for literally all concerned.” (I always wonder about school administrators who can’t write a sentence correctly.) The truth may not always be pretty, but it is positive. What’s negative is hiding truth in a dark closet, pretending it doesn’t exist. And worse, manipulating people with lies.

She then asks that people in the Houston area not attend the festival and that people everywhere who oppose this censorship email the superintendent.

But the other authors involved with Teen Lit Fest are going a step further. Melissa de la Cruz wrote a blog post yesterday about growing up in a dictator-controlled country that banned, among other media, Japanese anime. She writes that “[w]hen I moved to America, I was happy to discover that you could watch ANYTHING here. Censorship was NOT a way of life. The freedom was dizzying.” And then she gets to the heart of censorship of material for young people:

But I want every kid to be able to decide whether they want to read Ellen’s books or my books, or anyone’s books. Kids should be able to choose. (Parents can choose not to let their kids read something, and that’s fine. They can also choose not to let their kids go hear someone speak, but you can’t ruin it for other people’s kids whose parents decided THEY can hear a speaker or read a book.)

I didn’t get to choose when I was nine years old, and I remember being INCREDIBLY UPSET. In fact, the absence of those Japanese cartoons is something I have been MOURNING for twenty-years now. I really missed it when they took it away, and I was HORRIFIED to find out that SOMEONE ELSE decided WHAT I could watch. (Someone who was not my parents.) It really disturbed me. It CONTINUES to disturb me.

So de la Cruz has withdrawn from Teen Lit Fest, and Pete Hautman has, too. In his blog post, he recounts how he’s twice been asked to speak at a library and then had that invitation rescinded after his writing was deemed “inappropriate.” At the time he didn’t make a big deal about it, but now he sees that as a mistake, so he’s withdrawing from Teen Lit Fest to stand against censorship. He also says that Tara Lynn Childs and Matt de la Peña have withdrawn as well.

I think what makes me angriest about this whole situation is that this censorship was begun by a librarian. I know that school librarians walk a narrower line, but all librarians everywhere are supposed to be the defenders of intellectual freedom and the champions of a young person’s right to read. Parents may decide what their own children read, but they shouldn’t be able to decide what everyone’s children read–and libraries should be providing more opportunities, not fewer.

I’m glad that other authors involved in this event are standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins and taking a stand against censorship. Even if one librarian in Texas is determined to “protect” teens from “inappropriate” material (material that’s won awards and propelled Hopkins’s books to the New York Times Bestseller list!), there are plenty of other people in Texas and online who value choice and–as Julie Halpern wrote when one of her books was challenged–respect young readers.

You can email the Superintendent Sconzo if you’d like to share your thoughts with him.

Update: I should be clear that while I’m thrilled to see other authors standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins, I’m also sad that if the superintendent doesn’t change his mind, Houston-area teens are going to be denied a chance to meet the creators of the books they love. It bites that they’re the ones who are caught in the middle.

Update 2: Ellen Hopkins has written a follow-up blog post in which she acknowledges that authors withdrawing from the Teen Lit Fest is unfair to teens and librarians in Humble, but emphasizes that this is about censorship and the freedom of ideas.

Update 3: Matt de la Pena has confirmed via Facebook that he won’t be going either. Tera Lynn Childs has written a blog post about withdrawing from the event (as well as her letter to Superintendent Sconzo), including this particularly spot-on thought:

I really feel bad for the students in this situation. All they wanted was the chance to meet some great writers (trust me, Ellen Hopkins, Melissa de la Cruz, Pete Hautman, and Matt de la Pena are great writers) and maybe get some signed books. Instead, they’re missing out because a few adults think they know better.

That’s the problem with censorship, especially the kind that goes along with books. It’s usually couched in a fog of protection. As if keeping you from certain content is for your own good, and it’s really better this way. I’m especially appalled when this is applied to teen readers. Not only are teens generally way smarter and more mature and more experienced than we think, teen readers in particular are among the smartest people I know. It’s just insulting for adults in power (or those seeking power) to try to carry out their agenda waving the Because-They’re-Children and Because-We-Know-Better banners.

I couldn’t just sit by and be a part of this, and neither should you.

She also wrote a follow-up post with a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

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8 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Ellen Hopkins  |  August 17, 2010 at 3:38 PM

    It saddens all of us authors who won’t be there that our readers will miss seeing us, too. I, in fact, just did another blog about that, and as I said there it isn’t fair. But it’s important to stand solidly in a unified front against censorship. Authors, librarians, teachers… should all be on the front lines.

  • 2. Tweets that mention Libra&hellip  |  August 17, 2010 at 4:05 PM

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SB Sarah Wendell, RindaElliott, Kayleigh Donaldson, Irene Preston, Kate Uí Mhaoileoin and others. Kate Uí Mhaoileoin said: RT @SmartBitches: YA author Ellen Hopkins disinvited to Humble TX YA Lit Fest, other authors withdraw: http://bit.ly/dsatYo http://bit.ly/dwvzsN […]

  • 3. Jim  |  August 17, 2010 at 4:40 PM

    Hey, I’m wondering about this part of your post:

    all librarians everywhere are supposed to be the defenders of intellectual freedom and the champions of a young person’s right to read

    I think that makes total sense. At the same time, I (for instance) grew up in a rural town where something like this happening wouldn’t seem out of place (in the early 90’s). When I was in high school, we had to change the more “racy/adult” jokes in the woody allen plays we performed for the school play.

    I don’t want to imply that I agree with what’s happening–not AT ALL. I am also not surprised, though–if you look at it from a librarian’s perspective, however skewed, he/she probably thinks that this IS helping out the children involved.

  • 4. Me, Myself and I  |  August 18, 2010 at 11:49 AM

    To be transparent, I have not heard of Ellen Hopkins until now nor have I read any of her books. However, allow me to share my thoughts based on what I’ve read about this subject.

    1) Without addressing the appropriateness of the Superintendent’s actions, this should be a local issue since the he was elected by the people in Humble ISD to represent them. If the Humble ISD electorate don’t like how he manages their district, they can vote him out at the next election. Meanwhile, they are the ones that should be voicing their opinions to him and they are the ones to whom he is accountable and to whom he should be listening.

    2) Nowhere, that I can tell, has the district restricted any student’s “right to read.” Are Ellen Hopkins’ books still available in the Humble ISD librarires? Are they available in the community libraries?

    3) If these authors are so upset that “Houston-area teens are going to be denied a chance to meet the creators of the books they love, then why don’t these authors join together and visit Humble during the same time as the Teen Lit Fest so the teens are given a chance to meet them? Or is the whole point of this “protest” simply to raise a stink and elevate your own stance?

    4) Regarding Tera Lynn Childs’ statement that “they’re missing out because a few adults think they know better.” Is that not the role of these elected adults…to do what they think is best for their district? In what world do decisions not get made by a few people that think they know better? Corporate america is like that. School Districts are like that. Our government is like that. Our family units are like that.

    If you are going to get upset (which I can understand being), do your due diligence, site facts – not opinions, and provide a reasonable solution to accomplish what you believe is being hindered.

    And about what are you truly upset? Is it the uninviting of an author? The fact that the kids won’t get to meet an author or author(s)? Or the fact that someone elected to make a decision for the district actually made a decision – and it didn’t agree with the opinions of someone outside the district?

  • 5. Em  |  August 19, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    re: Jim

    I think you make a good point. Those that attempt to censor books in schools and libraries probably do think that their actions are supportive of what is best for children. Obviously that doesn’t mean they do know what is best for children, but it is helpful to keep in mind when engaging in dialogue.

    re: Me, Myself and I

    1) True, the people can vote him out if they are unhappy. And I do hope that people in Humble, TX are speaking up and contacting the superintendent. However, I disagree that it is just a local issue. Every time a book or author is “successfully” censored somewhere, it sets a precedent for censorship to happen again elsewhere. I also think it is important for those who would potentially attend the festival from outside Humble, TX, especially authors but readers as well, to let Sconzo know that they will not support the festival if the festival supports censorship (those that support censorship can also share their opinions). If he relies on the support of authors and readers for the success of this event, he needs to know how his choice of censorship will (or won’t) affect that.

    2) I do wonder if the librarian who complained has any of Ellen Hopkins’ books in her library’s collection (though she is a middle school librarian and Hopkins’ books tend to be more YA than J – does anyone know if middle school libraries frequently have YA titles?).

    3) I agree. It would be interesting if these authors could combine efforts to offer a program in the area – perhaps at a supportive library or bookstore. They could talk about the issue of censorship as part of the program.

    4) I guess we hope that our elected officials will at least attempt to make informed decisions and not just make decisions based on a few people’s opinions. Sconzo didn’t read the books and only made his decision based on a few complaints without taking the time to see if these complaints were representative of the community. I think far too many public officials make decisions in this way. My city’s mayor once said “one complaint is too many”. If officials make their decisions based on that logic (as it seems that Sconzo did – although in his case it was a few complaints) they are not making informed decisions that take into consideration the diverse views of their constituents.

    In terms of fact vs. opinion, I don’t see why those writing about this issue on their blogs should not be able to express their opinions (those that I have read also stated facts) just like you did in your comment (which was very thought provoking – thank you). I think the questions that you raise are good ones to consider for those trying to find a positive outcome to this situation (though I would personally change the wording of your last question to be about censorship and informed decisions).

  • 6. Lee  |  August 19, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    One thing I’d like to point out here is that every one of the people who pushed for Hopkins to be disinvited (and we won’t even get into the issue of how tacky THAT is!) would probably be a big supporter of the concept “actions have consequences”. Now THEIR actions are having the consequence that other authors are withdrawing from the festival, and that their school system is getting a bad rep. They made their bed, now they have to lie in it.

  • 7. Living down the challenge&hellip  |  August 20, 2010 at 9:33 AM

    […] scheduled to appear and address students. Ms. Hopkins wrote about it on her blog, and this article summarized the details and ensuing reaction from other writers. The gist is,  unfortunately, pretty standard when it comes to censorship. A very small number of […]

  • 8. Gretchen  |  August 20, 2010 at 1:37 PM

    Jim: I think the difference is that this should be a matter of choice. Your school only did one play, so it needed to satisfy the majority of parents. This festival invites many authors, and parents who object to Ellen Hopkins’s books can just not let their kids see her speak–or read her books in the library. Librarians especially should make more choices available, not fewer.

    Me, Myself, and I: As Em pointed out, while this particular event is a local one, and Superintendent Sconzo is a local elected official, censorship is a bigger issue. Those of us who aren’t from the area talk about it as an example of where our professional values haven’t been met in the hopes that we’ll be able to keep choices available to young people everywhere. The people who worked to have Hopkins uninvited are providing students with fewer choices. Em answered a lot of your points well, I think.

    Lee: while this may be true, I just hope the people involved with Teen Lit Fest don’t feel like the authors are punishing them. I think they’re just standing up for what they believe is right. It would be great if this could be resolved peacefully with all sides walking away from the deal happy.

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