Last year, a parent at a Virginia school board meeting stepped up to a microphone and read a passage from my book, “Sold.” The scene she chose to read, informed in part by my own experiences of sexual abuse, describes the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl by an older man. There is no graphic language or obscenity in the passage; the story is told from the point of view of a child — in the words of a child — and conveys her confusion, terror and physical pain.
The passage, this parent claimed, was “pornography.”
Pornography, according to the Cornell University Law School, is defined as “material that depicts nudity or sexual acts for the purpose of sexual stimulation,” or in many other accepted definitions, “intended to arouse.” And many people have struggled to define pornography — most famously Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said, “I know it when I see it.”
PEN America reported last month that “Sold” was one of the most banned books in the United States at the start of the 2022-23 school year. It made the list thanks, in part, to Moms for Liberty, a right-wing organization that has created a playbook that’s been used across the country — by people who in some case are not even parents — to lobby to have books removed from libraries and classrooms.
These challenges are not grass-roots responses to books coming home in students’ backpacks; they are campaigns orchestrated by a national clearinghouse with shadowy funding and apparent links to groups such as the Heritage Foundation. “Moms” in Texas, Florida, Idaho, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have all read the same passage and have used similar language to challenge the book.
While the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico reinforced limits to the state’s authority to remove books from school libraries “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books,” it still left plenty of room for groups like Moms for Liberty to maneuver on grounds of “inappropriate” content or obscenity.
To ban this book, which is based on interviews I conducted with girls in India and Nepal who had been sold into slavery, is to dishonor their real-life experiences and the courage it took for them to share their stories. One young woman spoke to me in flat, robotic tones and stared into space, as if she were seeing her experiences play out on a movie screen. Another spoke through the haze of an addiction that started when she was drugged at 15 and sold by a boyfriend.
Nearby, at the shelter where they lived, an 11-year-old girl remained curled up on a cot for weeks, unable to speak at all. These girls didn’t share their experiences of rape to “arouse” or “stimulate" anyone. They did it to shed light on the child trafficking that robbed them of their lives.
To ban this book is also disrespectful to the teenagers who want, and in some cases need, to read it. I’ve visited classrooms and juvenile detention centers all over the country since the book came out in 2006. At nearly every visit, a student comes forward to say that they have been sexually abused or are being sexually abused — and that seeing their experience rendered in a book finally emboldened them to say so. Some linger around after book signings and whisper to me privately; I encourage them to tell a trusted adult. One girl and I walked to the guidance counselor’s office together.
But a surprising number of readers — boys and girls — open up right in class. I always brace for a nervous or inappropriate reaction from the other children in the classroom. I wait for someone to laugh or scoff or gasp. They never do. They unfailingly treat such painful revelations with respect and empathy. Meanwhile, their teachers step in to provide help for a problem they may not have otherwise known about.
That’s what is consistently missing in the national conversation about book banning: the voices of those children and teenagers who see their experiences in print and finally realize they aren’t alone. And the ones who, fortunately, are not suffering such trauma, but who now have a window into the lives of their peers who do. We talk at them. And we talk about them. We try to control what they can read, think and do. What we don’t do is listen to them.
There is, without a doubt, a place for thoughtful debate about the appropriateness of books like mine. In response to parental concerns, many school boards are adopting protocols, based on suggestions by PEN or by the American Library Association for how parents, librarians and, in some cases, students can work together to determine, for instance, if access to a book ought to be restricted by age. (The discussion by the school board in Carroll, Ind., for instance, was thoughtful and thorough; they decided against banning the book.)
Alas, this isn’t the case in the Virginia school district where “Sold” was challenged. The superintendent has been called a “porn peddler” by school board members and their supporters. In March, a superintendent in another Virginia school district ordered 14 books, including mine, to be removed from the high school libraries.
Meanwhile, children and teens are facing a mental health crisis. Rates of depression and suicide are alarmingly high; resources to help them are depressingly limited. It would be wonderful if the time and energy spent organizing and arguing for book bans at school board meetings across the country was directed at getting these students the help they need and deserve. That is probably too much to hope for. Instead, I’ll rely on the innate wisdom of the young people I’ve met, who ought to be given credit for knowing what so many adults don’t: Books are not the problem. They are part of the solution.
Patricia McCormick is the author of books for young adults, including the novel “Sold.”
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