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A couple of weeks ago the entire world celebrated Banned Books Week.  Okay maybe not the entire world, but a lot of librarians and English teachers did. Banned Books Week usually involves such activities as handing out bookmarks and challenging students to select and read a book from a list of commonly banned books.  And for the most part, that’s a good thing.  There are a lot of books on these lists that I have either bought for my children, read to them, or that I hope they will read one day.  I have wonderful memories of crying, no sobbing, with my kids when we read Bridge to Terabithia and Charlott’s Web.  In my English classes, I have taught Huckleberry FinnTo Kill a Mocking Bird,  and Lord of the Flies.   The Giver and Harry Potter are among my children’s favorite books.  And, while certainly not my favorite, my eldest daughter has read nearly all of  John Green ‘s books.

The fact is, it’s hard to imagine why many of these books were ever banned.  It’s just crazy.  But the crazy thing about the Banned Books Week movement is that proponents of the movement would have us believe that school libraries should be allowed to  provide young people with literally any book out there without having to justify the appropriateness of the book.  Any attempt to use discernment or determine age appropriateness is decried as censorship.  And those who call into question a librarian’s choices are considered a threat to intellectual freedom.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating government censorship or that books be banned from public libraries.  But as a mother and a tax payer, I would like to think that when I send my children to school, they will not happen across books in the school library that include passages like this one from Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban (which is actually a Common Core recommended text for 10th graders).

“Hugo and Felicia stripped in their room, dissolving easily into one another, and made love against the whitewashed walls. Hugo bit Felicia’s breast and left purplish bands of bruises on her upper thighs. He knelt before her in the tub and massaged black Spanish soap between her legs. He entered her repeatedly from behind.

“Felicia learned what pleased him. She tied his arms above his head with their underclothing and slapping him sharply when he asked.

“‘You’re my bitch,’” Hugo said, groaning.

According to the good folks at the American Library Association, any attempt to restrict this novel, or anything libraries choose to make available to children, is a violation of the First Amendment.  The ALA lists Fifty Shades of Grey as one of the most commonly challenged books of 2013, but according to the ALA, a child’s right to read this book should be protected.  This is apparently more important than protecting children from pornography.

Fear Monger Much?

Fear Monger Much?

I realize that censorship is a slippery slope.  At least that’s what the Banned Books people want us to fear.  If we ban Fifty Shades of Grey, what’s to stop us from banning every book with any sexual content whatsoever?  Censorship is such a loaded word.  It implies a secret plot to restrict ideas or knowledge or a Big Brother-like control over information.  But what we are really talking about is limits.  And don’t schools limit kids already?   Students are not allowed to curse in school.  They cannot make racially insensitive statements.  They aren’t allowed to watch sexually explicit films in class – even those based on a classic novel.  When, where, and how they can pray is restricted.  And most schools have some form of a dress code in place.  All of these rules restrict (censor) students’ freedom of expression is some way. Can you imagine a high school or middle school where kids were allowed to express themselves absolutely any way they wanted too?

Still, the slippery slope concerns are valid.  Obviously book banning can get out of hand. Many books that are now considered classroom and childhood staples have at one time been challenged.  Yet, should we really advocate, indeed celebrate, the notion that our children can potentially have access to books with virtually any content with no adult discernment as to the appropriateness of those books?

Where things get tricky is when people challenge books based on their own personal beliefs.  Just because some people don’t believe that children should read books about witches and wizards, doesn’t mean the library should ban all Harry Potter books.  Some people might feel that children should not read books that encourage them to challenge authority.  That does not mean we need to ban Animal Farm.  I get it.  Discerning books is a delicate matter because what seems like a harmless story to one family might be considered gravely sinful by another.

Still, even with all the challenges involved with book restrictions, can’t we at least strive for some standard of decency?  That’s all I’m asking for.  A standard of decency.   Can’t we at least agree that there are some things a child or young teenager should not be exposed to?  Even the film industry does that much.  How about this? If the contents of a book would warrant an R rating as film, then maybe it should not be made available to 14 year olds.  It’s radical, I know.

It might not be easy.  Sometimes we might ere too much on the side of caution.  But the alternative is no standard of decency.  To me, that is a much more frightening prospect than the notion that my children’s freedom will somehow be violated because their public school denied them access to porn.

Really?

Really?

Disclaimer:  This is in no way a condemnation of librarians.  My own children’s schools are staffed by thinking, sensitive librarians who seek to provide our kids with the best possible age-appropriate literature.  We are grateful to have them.  

Image credits in order of appearance…

http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/

http://brkteenlib.tumblr.com/

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When I took my daughters to see The Fault in Our Stars, we saw the preview for the upcoming film, If I Stay, based on the book by Gayle Forman.  And while I was hoping the TFIOS would fulfill our rip-your-heart-out movie quota for the year , I knew as soon as this preview started that there was to be yet another traumatic movie going experience in our future.  And I’ll admit I was intrigued too.

Of course I had to read the book.  One, because I know my girls will want to read it.   And two, because I cannot resist the opportunity to feel superior to all the people in the theater who have not read the book.

If I Stay is the story of Mia Hall, a classical cellist and the daughter of former punk rock parents.  From the beginning of the novel , we see that Mia’s is a happy, close-knit family.   Her relationship with her parents is easy and laid back, and she adores her nine year old brother Teddy.  When her school calls a snow day, the entire family decides to take advantage of the day off and enjoy a family outing.  Unfortunately, the outing turns tragic when their car is hit by an oncoming truck.

It takes Mia a few minutes to realize what has happened.  Her parents are dead.  She and Teddy are horribly injured.  And she is watching the entire scene unfold from outside her own body.   This is of course confusing to Mia.  How can she be lying in a hospital bed unconscious and at the same time fully aware of what is going on around her?  It is in this state that Mia realizes that the decision to live or to die is up to her.    The chapters that follow alternate from Mia watching what is happening at the hospital  to flashbacks of her life before the accident.

In these flashbacks we learn about Mia’s life.  Her parents are cool – permissive yes, but loving and devoted to their children.  This is a refreshing change from so many YA novels in which the parents are detached, selfish, clueless and more messed up than any teenager,  Still,  some parents of  teenage readers might want to discuss the Hall’s lax parenting style.  For example Mia’s parents seem to be fine with her sexual encounters in her upstairs bedroom. And when Mia gets her first boyfriend, her mother is quick to offer to take her to Planned Parenthood and to give her money for condoms.

But the real story of Mia and her parents is their deep love for each other.  In fact, their deaths are the main reason Mia considers giving up the struggle to live.  She can’t imagine a life without the family she loves.  But there are other people Mia loves too.  Her best friend Kim comes to the hospital and reminds comatose Mia that she still has a lot of people left who love her and want her to stay – aunts, uncles, cousins.  There is a particularly moving passage in which Mia’s grandfather talks to Mia about her decision to live or die.

And of course there is Adam, Mia’s boyfriend.  Her flashbacks detail their romance, one her mother describes as real but inconvenient at 17.  Adam is the lead singer in a punk rock band.  In a lot of ways, he is more like Mia’s parents than she is.   Her impending admission to Julliard and his rising singing career are a source of difficulty for the young couple.  As far as teenage romance novels go, the relationship between Mia and Adam is in some ways easier to take than others.  It is more mature, less desperate.   One version of the novel’s cover (see above) contains a review stating this story will appeal to TWILIGHT fans.  Perhaps, but unlike Bella Swan, Mia is accomplished and self-possessed.  She does suffer from the same unfortunate “why me”  response when Adam first notices her, but her entire existence and self-worth are not dependent on him.  If that were true, his love would make her decision about staying or leaving easy.  But it isn’t.  In fact in spite of his love, the thought of staying behind without her parents is almost unbearable for Mia.  Bella Swan, on the other hand, was willing to ditch her parents in a heartbeat to follow Edward into immortality.  So yes, Mia is a much stronger character than Bella, but I’m still waiting for the YA novel in which the girls knows how awesome she is before the boy falls in love with her.

The thing that is conspicuously absent from this novel is Mia’s concern for what will happen, where she’ll go, if she decides to die.  At one point she wonders if death will be just like a deep sleep, but other than that she spends little time contemplating eternity – Heaven, Hell, judgement, abyss, God, or an afterlife.  Hers is not a religious family, but they are not atheists, and they do sometimes go to church.  Her grandmother’s beliefs about the afterlife – people becoming angels in the form of an animals – crosses her mind, but in general, Mia seems more concerned about what living will be like than what being dead will be like.  This novel is not anti-religion or void of spirituality.  Rather, these things are only alluded to and not explored.  Perhaps this type of temporal thinking is realistically typical for a 17 year old.  But still, in a novel that tackles the subject of choosing life or death, one would hope the main character might wrestle with these questions.  However, even though Mia doesn’t, the reader of  If I Stay certainly might be inspired to do so.

LANGUAGE

Yes.  Mia’s mother in particular is a big cusser – the F word included.

SEXUAL CONTENT

There is a scene that takes place in Mia’s bedroom that is not graphic (in fact it’s not entirely clear how far they go), but it is very sensual.  There are also references to making out and to Adam sleeping over.  Still, Mia and Adam’s sexual relationship is not a major part of the novel or even of their relationship.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Mia’s grandmother does believe that some of her relatives have returned in the form of animals, but Mia does not seem to take this too seriously.

VIOLENCE

None.  We do not get any details of the accident; however, Mia does describe how her parents look lying dead in the snow.  Very sensitive readers might find this disturbing.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.  Do you think Mia’s relationship with her parents might be different if they were less permissive?  Less cool?

2.  Do you agree with Mia’s mother that sometimes you can fall truly in love too soon?

3. Mia doesn’t give a great deal of thought to the afterlife.  Do you think this is realistic or do you think someone facing her own death would be more apt to consider the afterlife?

4.  What is Mia’s relationship like with her brother, Teddy?  Why do they share the bond that they do?

5.  Do you think people in a situation like Mia’s can will themselves to live or to die?

6.  Do you think people in a coma can hear people talking to them?

7.  Like Bella in Twilight, Mia can’t quite believe that Adam really likes her.  She feels unworthy.  Do you think it is common for girls to base their worth on the  boys who like them?  Do you think that Mia is ultimately a stronger character than Bella?

QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL

“And even though they don’t know who we are or what has happened, they pray for us.  I can feel them praying.”

“But the you who you are tonight is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I’ll be in love with tomorrow…Hell, you’re the punkest girl I know no matter who you listen to or what you wear.”

“I shouldn’t have to care.  I shouldn’t have to work this hard.  I realize now that dying is easy.  Living is hard.”

“Sometimes you make your choices in life.  Sometimes your choices make you.”

“…seventeen is an inconvenient time to be in love.”

“Either way you win.  And either way you lose.  What can I tell you?  Love’s a bitch.” (Mia’s mom)

“I’ll let you go.  If you stay.”  (Adam talking to comatose Mia)