The day before Kate Messner was scheduled to speak to students about her latest novel, The Seventh Wish (Bloomsbury, June), the author received a troubling message from the school’s administrators: Don’t come.
Though the librarian at the Vermont elementary school had specifically requested Messner’s appearance, the invitation was rescinded when someone at the school grew concerned that students were not prepared to handle one of the novel’s threads, a subplot about heroin addiction.
Messner was dismayed, to say the least. “When we decide a book is inappropriate for a school library because it deals with a tough subject, we’re telling kids in that situation that their problems can’t even be talked about,” she said.
The cancellation of Messner’s appearance happened on the heels of the Round Rock (Tex.) Independent School District’s decision to cancel author Phil Bildner’s appearances this coming fall at eight of its elementary schools. A district spokesman said Bildner, who has visited the Texas school district for the past seven years, made inappropriate remarks to students about challenging adult authority during his presentations last year. But in a statement posted to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom blog, Bildner wrote he believes the real reason is an objection to some of the books he recommended to students last fall, including Alex Gino’s novel, George (Scholastic Press), which describes a fourth-grade student’s gender transition.
Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, says Bildner’s case is especially noteworthy because the dispute became public. Far more common are incidences of “quiet” or “soft” censorship. Potentially controversial books and authors are not banned; they are just not purchased or invited to appear.
“It’s something we’re discussing more and more,” said Pekoll. “It runs the gamut from libraries not ordering certain books, to requiring parental permission slips, or keeping the book behind the counter.” Just the act of requiring parental permission for a student to read a particular book is problematic, Pekoll said. “Unless you get a permission slip for every book, you’re prejudicing against that one book.”
In fact, after Messner blogged about the withdrawal of her invitation to speak in South Burlington, an elementary school librarian from a different state e-mailed her to say she had The Seventh Wish on her order list, but removed it after learning it addressed opioid addiction. “Maybe there are some liberal communities out there that totally embrace telling children every possible bad thing that could happen to them in their life,” the librarian wrote in an e-mail to Messner, “but once that innocence bubble is popped they can never unlearn those things or remove those images. I want some more hours of sprinklers, mud pies, and running around with light sabers.”
(Messner promised the librarian’s anonymity in exchange for her permission to publish their e-mail exchange on Messner’s blog.)
Messner, a former middle school English teacher, did not set out to write about heroin. The Seventh Wish began as a retelling of the Brothers Grimm folktale, “The Fisherman and His Wife,” about a poor man who frees a flounder that begs for its life and is granted a series of (increasingly disastrous) wishes. Messner’s main character is 12-year-old Charlotte (called “Charlie”), who turns to ice fishing to raise money to buy a fancy Irish stepdancing dress. But while she was still developing the plot, Messner ran into a neighbor as she arrived home one day with groceries. “I waved at her from my driveway and asked, ‘How’s it going?’ Her response was ‘terrible,’ which is not the answer you’re supposed to get,” Messner said.
The conversation that followed revealed that the neighbor’s college-age daughter had become addicted to heroin. “I’m right on Lake Champlain, in an upper middle-class neighborhood, where we love to believe these kinds of things don’t happen, but they do,” Messner said. “The newspaper had been full of headlines about an opioid epidemic in northern New York and Vermont. Why had I thought we would be exempt?”
Messner decided to explore how addiction would affect a younger sibling. Over the course of the story, Charlie’s wishes change dramatically. “I had to explain to my editor that the fairy tale retelling about a magic fish she was expecting was going to include a subplot about heroin addiction,” Messner said. “But I felt it was important to tell a story about this through the eyes of a young person because so many families are shattered by addiction and nobody talks about it.”
When the school librarian requested Messner’s visit in January, she was sent an advance copy of the book and a letter written by Messner explaining that the novel contained an “honest but age-appropriate look at the effect heroin addiction has on families.” Messner is not sure the letter – or her book – were read until just before her scheduled visit.
“I don’t think this was censorship, but I do think there was a breakdown in communication,” Messner said. Since the initial cancellation, the principal has assured Messner that the school library will shelve The Seventh Wish, and e-mailed parents to let them know that the South Burlington Community Library and Phoenix Books, an independent bookstore in Burlington, Vt., will host an event with Messner on June 28. Supporters donated more than 100 books so that every child who attends can go home with something new to read this summer.
The ALA’s Pekoll says the way to avoid what happened to Messner is for librarians “to build a network of pro-active engagement ahead of time. Don’t let people be blindsided. If there’s a mature aspect of a book you think is important, talk about it with teachers, the principal, parents.” Pekoll sent a personal note to Messner when she heard about the cancelled visit. “I lost a brother to heroin addiction,” she said. “I could have really benefited from a book like Kate’s. How do you tell people that your brother died that way? It’s so important to have a way to talk to kids on their level about harder issues.”
Bildner’s impasse with the Texas school district remains unresolved. The author declined to comment for this story, referring questions to Pekoll, and hoping that the school district might rethink its cancellation after R.J. Palacio, the author of Wonder, sent a strongly worded letter asking them to reconsider.
“Whether the reason for the cancellation was, as many believe, because Phil booktalked George, or it was, as you state, because of a comment he made that was ‘not acceptable’ to you, the message you are sending to those of us who have ever visited – or plan to visit – your schools is the same: unless every comment that comes out of our mouths is in ‘alignment’ with your belief system, we will be subject to the same treatment as Phil,” Palacio wrote. “The fact is, Round Rock, when you disinvited Phil Bildner, you disinvited me. You disinvited all of us who may have opinions that differ from yours.”