Banned Book Debate Hits Home

I love it when the universe organizes things for my own personal satisfaction. We're about to enter banned book week, and books are now being challenged right here in the Austin metropolitan area.

I know. Who'd a thunk?

Then I had the dilemna of where to write about it. After all, I've been running all that Banned Book stuff over at Bookpeople's kids blog, but this is a local issue, and if Bookpeople is viewed as taking a side, there could be all sorts of financial ramifications. And at the beginning of a recession, the last thing the store needs is boycott during the holiday season.

Finally, I decided to go ahead and post over there, but I added not one, but two disclaimers to stave off people verbally firebombing the store. The post and my views on the local challenged book controversy can be found here.

I'm hoping this turns into a well-reasoned debate and not people name calling. We shall see. And I shall edit those I find inappropriate.

And Austin authors: what do you think about this happening in our own backyard? I have to admit I was surprised.


High Fantasy, First Person Point of View

Whenever you build a secondary world, a fair amount of your book is going to necessarily be devoted to world building.  This is true regardless of whether or not you are doing a low, portal, or high fantasy.  After all, you have to introduce your world to the reader.  And the more different the world, the harder it may be for the reader to visualize.  The easiest way to describe something is to relate it to something you expect the reader to know.  This is why figurative language can be so effective.  But if you have a really different world, it can be hard to describe it to others especially if you world requires new slang and jargon.

So, most high fantasies are written in third person.  Even with a close character point of view, there's a little more room to fudge when you're somewhat omniscient.  You have to be careful, but by using figurative language and other cheats, you can relate your world back to ours.  For example, if you have genetically engineered animals in your world, but the world doesn't call it genetic engineering, you might be able to mention the term genetic engineering at some point in the narrative.  It would depend on the tone and how jarring the term is to the overall flow of the text, but at least there is a chance you just might be able to sneak it in.

This is not an option in a first person narrative (or for that matter a third person point of view that is so close that it might as well be a first person like the Harry Potter books or Lyra's portion of The Golden Compass).  In these books everything has to be consistent with the character's knowledge.  Using the example above, if the character has never heard the term "genetic engineering," then the term had better not ever pop up in the text.  The character simply wouldn't have thought of those words.  If you use them, you've broken character.

What's worse for a first person narrative (and not for a third person regardless of closeness) is that most first person narratives assume that the reader is also a member of that world.  So, there is no way for there to be references from our world because not only would the character not realistically think of them, the reader shouldn't be able to understand them.

So, if a first person high fantasy is so difficult to write why does anyone do it?

The answer is that most don't.  Most high fantasies are in the third person because ultimately in is a more natural way for the author to write.  You have more opportunity to relate to our world and an implied reader who is of our world, not the secondary world.

However, there are a few books that take on this challenge, and they do it well:
  • Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
    Jones gets around the whole reader being a part of the secondary world by having many secondary worlds in this book.  The first person narrator jumps from world to world in his quest to go home.  Since he's supposed to be recording a record for someone who didn't know that the other worlds existed, Jones is able to explain all of the worlds.  And although the narrator doesn't come from our world (hence it is a high fantasy -- technically the book is a science fantasy) it is close enough to our own that we understand what he talks about.
  • Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
    This book is set in a world that is similar to Napoleonic Britain -- but a world with magic.  The two characters are writing letters to one another, and so they assume the reader (the other character) is already acquainted with the world.  However, the world is not so dramatically different that the reader has no difficulty catching on, especially if the reader has read any Jane Austen.
  • Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce
    This world is not even remotely similar to ours, and has very few, very slight parallels to our own.  In fact, at some point I decided that the setting (the Republic of Califa) is our California.  Is there any reason for me to think this?  No.  It's just my brain's way of trying to relate the world to our own.  That or the clues are so subtle that I picked up on them subconsciously.  Either way, the book's world is fascinating, and the main character jumps in with full slang from the first sentence.  There's no doubt that this world ain't our Earth anymore.


For the Fantasy Writers Out There

I like fantastic children's books.  They're my favorite type of kid books.  In fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction were my focuses when I did critical work in grad school.   I thought it might be fun if we spent some time discussing fantasy writing.

And I thought we'd start with the trickiest fantasy to write -- first person high fantasy.

Before I go any farther, let me define a few of the jargony terms I'll be using.  I tried to write this post without them, but it got too convoluted.
  • Primary World -- Our world.  The realistic, normal everyday world we live in.  Planet Earth.
  • Secondary World -- The fantastic world that is fundamentally different in some way from our own.  The difference could just be that it has a different history.  The world in a science fiction story that occurs on a different timeline from ours (ex. Hitler won WWII is a popular one) is a secondary world.  In a traditional fantasy like Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth is the secondary world.
  • High Fantasy -- A fantasy that takes place entirely on a secondary world.  Also thought of as "Sword & Sorcery" fantasies, they almost always take place in a pre-industrial society.  Examples include Eragon, Goose Girl, and Sabriel.
  • Low Fantasy -- A fantasy that takes place entirely on our world.  Supernatural or magical stuff infringes on our world.  Most ghost stories are low fantasy.  Some examples include the Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson, and Sister Grimm books.
  • Portal Fantasy -- The main characters transition between a primary and secondary world by some means.  In The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, the Pensieve kids transition from England into Narnia.  The wardrobe is the portal between the two worlds.
And this is starting to become a little long.  Tomorrow:  first person high fantasy -- why it's hard and a good example


My Banned Book Reading Report

All right. I took my own challenge. I have finally managed to read a book I hadn't read before that has been banned or contested somewhere. Before I tell you which one, I would like to point out that I've read a bunch of new books that I think will get contested or that I'm surprised haven't been contested.

So, here's my book. Drum roll, please.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
by William Steig.

I know what you're thinking. You haven't read this before? And it's true. I hadn't. I wasn't read to much as a kid, and once I could read not at all. I missed the whole picture book part of youth, which is probably why I don't have a lot of interest in them today. There just isn't a whole cache of fond picture book memories floating around my brain.

However, I broke away from my usual comfort zone and read a picture book. And I enjoyed it. It's a classic, award winner for a reason.

Now the text is too long for a modern picture book. Picture books are still trending to the minimal word to wordless picture book with long stories like Sylvester becoming rare. However, that doesn't make Sylvester any less charming.

I also enjoyed the change in point of view in the story. Flipping back and forth between Sylvester the stone and his parents gives added depth to the plot. After all, it wouldn't be all that interesting to follow Sylvester's month as a rock. Nowadays, though, books are more rigid in their viewpoints.

In fact, Sylvester reads more like a fairy tale than a modern picture book. I loved reading it, and I recommend it to others.

And if you were wondering why it was banned, police associations in 12 states asked librarians to remove the book because the police in it were drawn as pigs. Now, all the characters are animals, and the police are not portrayed negatively, but on the page they appear, they are drawn as pigs.


More Musings on Banning Books

Possibly because I've been typing up all those banned book notices for the other blog, I have become a bit obsessed with banned books and the results of banning books. One of the things I've been turning over in my head is the way banning a book impacts sales -- it guarantees them.

So, it has always seemed to me an odd paradox. If you want a book to never be read and disappear from the face of the earth, why on earth would you create a media maelstrom and loads of publicity? This drives curiosity about the book which drives sales. By telling people that they shouldn't read a book it almost always guarantees that they will.

If I had a book I didn't want people to read, I would start a word of mouth campaign telling people why it wasn't worth reading. Some people might read it, but most will assume you know what you're talking about. A negative word of mouth campaign is insidious and almost impossible to combat. If one of my friends tells me that a book isn't worth reading, I'm less likely to read it. If someone in the news tells me I shouldn't read it, I go find the nearest copy.

What I'm trying to get at, is that I don't understand the point of trying to get a book banned. It always has the opposite effect of what the banners intended, and it almost always puts the banners in a negative light. No one likes to have someone else tell them which of their freedoms (in this case freedom of the press) should be restricted.

I think we should all start a campaign for the inclusion of all books regardless of your opinion of them. Any book that makes it through the arduous publishing process deserves its place in the market. It may not be a book you like or approve of, but that just means that you weren't the intended audience.

I challenge every reader out in the kiddie-litosphere to read at least one banned book before the end of Banned Book Week on October 3. Then feature that book on your blog. If possible, try to pick a book you might not even like all that much. After all, there probably is someone out there who would appreciate the book. If you need ideas for banned books, check out my daily listings at BookKids Recommends or the ALA's Banned Books Week site.

Read. Post. Fight Censorship in all its forms.


International Literacy Day

I had no idea yesterday was international literacy day. How rather appropriate that I decided to devote the day to ranting about banned books on various blogs. After all, one of the joys of learning to read is the ability to broaden your horizon. However if someone else picks which books you are allowed to read, it becomes much more difficult.

However, the goal of literacy is noble all by itself. Fortunately loads of people in the kid-litosphere have decided to discuss the topic. Even better, the fabulousJen Robinson has compiled a list of folks chatting about this topic.

Have a looksee at all the great articles celebrating reading and the written word.


Ban Those Books

Now as some you may know, the slogan of CBAY Books is to publish "The Banned Books of Tomorrow." The idea behind that is my publishing philosophy. I try to publish the books that are perhaps a bit more controversial than most. You know, the books where the gods are super-humanoids not deities (Emerald Tablet) or where Adam from the Garden of Eden is a wee bit insane (Sacred Books, Volume III).

Because these are the kinds of books that some people find objectionable, these are the types of books that often end up challenged in school libraries. And with my first two CBAY Books releasing in October of this year I fully expect to see both books to have been challenged by this time next year.

But until we can celebrate my banned books, let's take some time to think of other books that have been banned in the past. Over on the BookKids blog, I've discussed the issue of banned books and Banned Book Week. Also over there, I'll be trying to mention a Banned Book a day through the end of Banned Book Week on October 3.

Join us on the other blog to celebrate those books that have been affected by censorship.


Where Have All the Titles Gone

There's an old (to me) folk-ish song that the Kingston Trio sings where they wonder where all the flowers have gone. In the song you learn that the flowers have gone to young girls who give them to young boys who turn into soldiers and then die in combat. I know it. It's a happy, upbeat song.

But it got me wondering, where have all the titles gone? Because of the recession, book patrons have cut their spending, bookstores have cut their inventory, and so presses (including our own) are reducing the number of books we put out a year. We're dropping our original hardcovers down from 5 that come out this year to 3 definite hardcovers. Now we have more than 3 books coming out next year, but many of those are coming out as paperback. It's what the chains want, and they are what sells better.

So, what are agents and authors doing with these extra manuscripts? Since fewer books are being acquired right now, are people just holding on to them until the market turns around?

I once read how a big name author (I won't say which one) experienced a period where he/she wasn't being offered the advances he/she and his/her agent felt he/she warranted due to a downswing in the economy. Instead of selling the books, he/she chose to hold onto them and resubmit to different publishers when the market picked back up.

What do you think about doing something like that? Would you? I'm curious to see how the recession is affecting authors. I know how it's affecting publishers, but what about you? Feel free to comment and discuss in the comment field below.