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Censorship debate kills Humble Teen Lit Fest

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Anne McIlhany

The 2011 Humble Teen Lit Fest has been canceled, amid an uproar that started when an author’s literature was deemed “inappropriate” for younger attendees. New York Times bestselling author Ellen Hopkins was slated to speak at the event, but, according to Hopkins, when an undisclosed number of concerned parents complained to the district, she was asked to withdraw. Hopkins is the author of several books that deal with difficult and controversial topics, and she is extremely popular among the teen reader set. She has visited Humble ISD twice before to give an author talk, with no problems. “I never expected it to blow up like it has,” said Hopkins. “We’re authors – we believe in the First Amendment. When you don’t want someone to appear in public and speak, you are censoring them.” Following Hopkins’ removal from the event, several other authors who planned to attend then withdrew their participation in protest, leading to the event’s demise. Humble ISD Superintendent Dr. Guy Sconzo stands behind his decision to not have Hopkins attend the event. “I totally own the decision to not invite her to the Teen Lit Fest,” said Sconzo. “I did hear from some concerned middle-school parents about this. Our Teen Lit Fests have always included middle and high-school students, and for a district-sanctioned, extracurricular Saturday event, I felt it would be awkward at best to have a setting where students would be checked so only high- school students would be admitted to her session(s). I don’t understand the censorship issue at all. All of our lit fests to date are outside of school being in session and to that end, I think we enjoy the right to determine who will and who will not participate.” Pete Hautman was one of the first authors to withdraw in protest of Hopkins’ exclusion. “I think the main reason I felt I had to withdraw was that if they felt Ellen’s books were unacceptable, the librarian and parents might easily find my books unacceptable as well,” said Hautman. “It was a personal decision, and a difficult one for me to make. I feel bad for the teens who have been deprived of what should have been a fantastic book event, and for the organizers of the festival, who did no wrong. Book festivals such as Teen Lit Fest are an important way to get teens interested in reading, and the cancellation of it harms all of us.” Author Melissa de la Cruz was another author who pulled out of the author lineup. “I definitely wanted to make a statement and take a stand, and it is not an easy thing. I feel very badly about missing out on meeting my readers, and causing a bit of a contretemps,” she said. “I am a very non-confrontational person in real life, and I hate arguments. But I do believe that actions speak louder than words and the kids will learn that censorship should never be tolerated.” Some claim that there is no censorship taking place. A parent of a local middle-school student who wishes to remain anonymous is comfortable with the district’s decision. “I do not believe this is true censorship,” said the parent. “The author’s books are available in the school libraries, how is that censorship? I think maybe it was a misunderstanding more than anything.” Karen Collier, executive director of public information for Humble ISD, also said that she does not believe it is an example of censorship. “This is an excellent author whose work is appropriate for high-school-age students, but not for kids as young as 11,” said Collier. “That is why her books are in our high-school libraries, but not in our middle-school or elementary-school libraries. There is a big difference between material being age-appropriate and censorship, and most parents get that.” Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, strongly disagrees. “Someone does not have to be censored everywhere to be censored somewhere,” she said in response to claims that this was not a case of censorship. “It is censorship whenever the government acts to silence a speaker or a publication because it disagrees with their views, or they are offended by the views expressed. “This is a classic case of censorship,” she continued. “Hopkins was disinvited because people did not agree with her views and her books, and they went to the school official, who implemented that view, enforced it, and imposed it on everybody.” Author Tera Lynn Childs also withdrew from the Lit Fest, and gives her point of view on the censorship divide. “There has been much debate online as to whether this situation qualifies as censorship,” said Childs. “I believe that any action taken to prevent or restrict an author’s speech based entirely on the content of her books, especially in the guise of protecting children from uncomfortable or unpleasant topics, is censorship in its most subtle and insidious form.” Hopkins said that censorship goes beyond simply banning a book. “I think it’s important that people understand that yes, it is censorship when you choose to not let someone speak because you are afraid of their ideas,” she said. Across the board, the authors expressed that their decision to withdraw was not taken lightly. “I would like to stress that this festival has an amazing reputation among authors. It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” said author Matt de la Pena. “The people I dealt with were incredibly nice and excited to bring authors and readers together.” Todd Strasser was one author who decided not to withdraw. “I think it would have played right into the hands of these people who wish to censor,” said Strasser. “And it would have been a form of self-censorship.” An eighth-grade student at Kingwood Middle School, who wishes to remain anonymous, is disappointed in the turn of events. “I was looking forward to it,” said the student. “Why can’t a parent just tell their own child they can’t read the book, or they can’t go to the book fest, instead of making that decision for everyone else?” Photo: New York Times bestselling author Ellen Hopkins.

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