Friday, October 5, 2012

YA Friday: Freedom to Read with John Corey Whaley

Corey visited my library in May.
Today, for a special Banned Books Week edition of YA Friday--it's young adult author John Corey Whaley!

His coming-of-age novel Where Things Come Back was awarded the 2012 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and the 2012 William C. Morris YA Debut Award. These are major literary accolades, but they have not made his novel immune to the challenges aimed at so many young adult books. I asked Corey--that's how he introduced himself at his book event at my library last May--a few questions about the freedom to read. Without further ado, here's what he had to say:

What does the freedom to read mean to you as a YA author?
Corey: The freedom to read has always been something I refuse to take lightly. When I first discovered, around 8th grade, that some books were banned around the world, in certain schools, and at different points in history, I immediately knew that I couldn't take my freedoms for granted and that I had the obligation to treat reading with the utmost respect. Being a YA author has only strengthened that emotion in me--I've seen first hand how easily and haphazardly a book can be misinterpreted or mis-categorized, how quickly a small group of people can try to take that freedom away from our young people. My first and most important mission as an author for teens is to be obsessed with the truth---to find new and creative ways to tell stories that, whether real or not, have some universal, meaningful truth that teenage readers can not only relate to, but through which they can also find comfort and understanding. The freedom to read is equal to the freedom to learn and to grow as a person, and those mean more to me than anything.

You taught middle and high school English. How did teaching young adults affect your perspective on censorship and the freedom to read?
Corey: There were several moments in my career as a teacher when I had to ask myself some very important questions. "Should my students be reading this?" "Should I skip over this section?" "Should I censor this author's words so I don't cause any trouble or offend anyone?" And, to tell you the truth, I probably made a few bad decisions and a few good ones along the way. It's a difficult thing, to judge for someone else what they can and can't handle, the things that their respective lives and upbringings make them sensitive to and so forth. I'd say my perspective was most affected when I realized, as a high school teacher, that a history teacher had been giving misinformation to my students and treating it as fact. She hadn't given them the option to question her, but had told them a lie and used her authority to make it their truth. So, I re-taught them the lesson in my English class...I let them know that they have to be careful who they get certain information from and why certain people, even figures of authority, don't always have all the answers. Maybe I digressed a bit there, but this experience led me to look at my role as a teacher in a new light--it made me realize that above all else, it was my duty to give my students the truth, be it difficult or not. So, I'd say teaching had a grandiose affect on the way I view censorship and the freedom to read and learn, even when certain truths make us uncomfortable.

What are some of your favorite frequently challenged or banned books?
Corey: Ah! There are SO many. Some of my favorites are definitely The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These books changed the way I viewed literature as a young adult, and it pains me to think that other teens are blocked access from experiencing them.

What advice would you give teens whose parents or teachers tell them a book they want to read is off-limits for being "inappropriate"?
Corey: Great question. I've never been a parent, but my years as a teacher instilled in me that, first and foremost, it is a parent's job to protect and look after his or her child and make the tough decisions that affect that child. But, I also think that if teens disagree with their parents on certain books being "inappropriate," then they should perhaps use this disagreement as an opportunity to open up a dialogue with their parents. Teens could challenge their parents to read a book along with them, to discuss the difficult, possibly inappropriate topics and actually use this as a way to learn more about the harsh realities of the adult world. I think, if parents are open to it, this could actually be a very open and honest way of connecting with their children and, most assuredly, a way to learn a little something themselves.


Thank you, Corey, for sharing your perspective on the freedom to read. As a librarian who often fields questions from parents about whether this book or that book is "appropriate" for their children, I'm glad to hear at least one other person thinks that difficult or controversial stories can provide opportunities for discussion when read together.

Readers, celebrate your freedom to read and look for Corey's award-winning novel Where Things Come Back at a library or independent bookstore near you!

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic interview. I am curious to know what the lesson was that the History teacher gave false information about, ha. I completely agree with Corey's words about using a challenged book as a teaching tool between the parent and child. I wish more relationships were open to communication that way. Thanks so much for sharing this!


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