Fifty years ago, when I was a high school English teacher, I dodged a brief skirmish in the censorship wars. The department chair, a man of wit and few illusions, asked me to stop by his office between classes. The mother of one of my advanced placement students demanded my immediate dismissal for forcing her daughter to read D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a censorship cause célèbre of the previous decade that even nonreaders had heard about.
When he learned that my class was reading Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, he reached for the phone with a weak smile. “And I’m forbidden to tell you who this parent is,” he said, “because she’s afraid you’ll take it out on her daughter.”
“It’s Helena’s mother, isn’t it?” I said, naming the angriest girl in class. My boss grinned broadly and began to dial.
And that was that, the only instance of attempted censorship I can remember from my teaching years. The center held. The administrator didn’t fear the parent, and it was nothing to do with a book. It was about a parent’s power failure.
When I became a writer, my favorite readers were the students I’d left behind in my roll book—and now their grandchildren, as it’s 45 years and myriad books later. Still, the censorship wars rage on with thunder from the left and lightning from the right, meanwhile parents don’t have control of their children’s behavior in their own homes, where the cell phone comes to the dinner table and goes to bed with the child.
My newest book, The Best Man, is on a well-worn theme among my books: a boy looks to his world of grown men in search of role models superior to those in his peer group. Two of his heroes are an uncle and a National Guardsman who’s the boy’s favorite teacher at school. They want to marry each other, and because they’re Americans living in the 21st century, they can. The boy becomes the best man at their wedding. It’s the most favorably reviewed of all my books and a nominee for a 2017–2018 Georgia Children’s Book Award.
Then last month, The Best Man hit a wall. Being featured in a state reading competition cuts no ice with parents, who don’t know the award exists. A private school in Athens, Ga., invited Avid Bookshop, an independent bookstore, to its book fair to feature the nominated books, which had been approved by the school in advance of the fair, among their titles. After a book fair manager showed The Best Man to a student, the manager overheard a parent ask, “Is this what we’re teaching our children?” The head of the school then instructed that The Best Man be hidden—put in a box so that no child could accidentally find it.
But there is a supple strength in independent book stores, and Avid is a very independent book store. Its owner, Janet Geddis, made the well-timed decision to withdraw from the school’s book fair. Such a decision may not be unprecedented, but the act of packing up and leaving the book fair of a school that caves to the first complaining parent made enough noise on the net that the head of the school sent a letter to parents. The letter said that the situation was “an anomaly that does not accurately reflect the values of inclusivity and diversity that we hold dear to our hearts.... It is our sincerest hope that our many LGBTQ+ students, parents, alumni, and friends will help us continue to move forward in a positive and healthy way, and we will learn and grow as a result.”
Is there hope ahead here? Maybe, cautiously. Even five years ago, would the head of a school acknowledge its LGBTQ students, parents, alums, and friends? And again, on the plus side, the bookstore owner reported sales of 150 copies of The Best Man in its first week. A bit of banning never hurts.
Newbery Medalist Richard Peck’s latest book is The Best Man (Dial, 2016).