Real talk: On the banning of books

I love to read.

Obvious statement is obvious, of course, but it’s one that I believe bears repeating. Since I learned to read many, many, many years ago, I’ve read pretty much every book I could get my hands on. My fourth and fifth grade teachers still talk about how they had to make me put up my book during our weekly spelling tests.

There were two articles I read last week; both, coincidentally, involved author Neil Gaiman. Now, I feel like someone is going to revoke my nerd status for this next remark, but I have to clear the air her: Gaiman’s bestseller book, American Gods, is one of the few books I have never been able to finish. The story just did not captivate me the way I hoped it would.

There. I said it. Shun away, y’all.

(Also, if you’re not a reader but wondering why American Gods sounds familiar, it’s because it’s currently in development as a series for HBO).

However, an article popped up on my Twitter feed linking to a Guardian article about a lecture Gaiman gave recently in London. You can read the article in its entirety here, and I strongly recommend you do so — and yes, for those of you who are Facebook friends with me, I did post this on my wall last week.

There was one key point that ties into the next article, and it’s really such an amazing point that I want to highlight it here.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

Well-meaning adults… it’s those people I want to discuss now.

The other article I saw on Twitter last week referenced one of Gaiman’s other popular works, Neverwhere. The BBC recently produced an amazing podcast of the story featuring a veritable Who’s Who of British stars including James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, and Benedict Cumberbatch (available on iTunes, I believe).

A mother in Alamogordo, New Mexico, successfully petitioned the local school board to remove Neverwhere from a supplemental reading list at Alamogordo High School, where the book has been offered in the curriculum since 2004.

Why?

A single passage on page 86 which makes reference to two background characters engaging in public sex.

And just for the record, I would like to high five the English teacher at AHS who wrote this letter in response to the controversy. Rock on, Ms. Wallis!

Now, let me clear this up: I do not have kids. I don’t even have a dog. However, I don’t think it’s possible for me to state how strongly I am opposed to this sort of knee-jerk reaction from “well-meaning adults” when it comes to removing books from library shelves.

Story time! When I was in the eighth grade, a mother of one of my classmates petitioned the school board to remove several books from our junior high library shelf. While I’ve forgotten what the third book was, the other books were Detour for Emmy and The Color Purple — the former because it included a sexual scene, the latter because the book opens with a rape.

My thirteen year-old self was very outspoken against the campaign. I supported our school librarian, talked to my classmates and teachers about why the banning of books was wrong, and even wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper (my parents still have several copies in their office).

I didn’t believe — and I still don’t believe — that a few parents have the right to dictate what I can and cannot read. Nor do I feel that this mother in New Mexico has the right to deprive 100+ high schoolers of the opportunity to read Neverwhere. I was blessed with two amazing parents who pretty much let me read whatever I wanted to, but they were always there to talk about my literature choices with me.

My best friend’s parents wouldn’t allow her to read Harry Potter. We all know how much I adore those books. They weren’t my parents’ cup of tea, but they never tried to stop me from enjoying them. We had open discussions about witchcraft, magic, and faith — but not once did they take my books away from me.

Long story short: banning books is wrong. And in our society, it is baffling to me that this sort of thing is still going on. Take a stand, and read a banned book. Or you know, read a non-banned book.

The point is: read.

Real Talk: A fear of failure

What scares you?

I don’t mean the deep fears, the ones rooted in some dark psychological place that is far too serious for my blog. I mean the little, trivial ones. Scary things like clowns, horror movies, or spiders.

No, these aren’t personal… why do you ask?

Amen, Ron.

I like to think that not much scares me on a superficial level. I know my friends will argue — they’ve seen my face when someone suggests we watch the latest Saw movie. HOWEVER. It is completely logical to dislike scary movies. I mean, why would I want to be scared for the fun of it? Scary =/= fun.

Sorry, tangent. That’s not the point. The point is, I’m going to share with you something that scares me.

Failure.

I know, that’s a cop-out fear. After all, doesn’t everyone fear failure? Who walks around and thinks, “You know, I’d like to fail today.” Not I, said Virginia. I was born with a healthy spirit of competition and a need to win at everything. I’m sure that doesn’t stem from growing up in a competitive family or anything.

A year or so ago, my cousin directed me to the TED Talks website. It’s a collection of inspirational and thought-provoking talks given by various celebrities, writers, artists, and other innovators. If you have time, head on over and take a look — but I’m going to embed my favorite below.

In 2008, JK Rowling (she of the Harry Potter genius) gave the commencement address at Harvard University. Obviously, I didn’t go to Harvard — but a generous soul filmed her speech, and it’s available as a TED Talk. The topic of her address?

The Importance of Imagination and the Fringe Benefits of Failure.

It’s a very entertaining speech, and if you’ve got some time, I would encourage you to listen to all of it. I could dissect the entire thing, but that would take more time than we have today.

But what does all this have to do with me?

Well, I’m starting a new project — a project that strikes fear in my heart. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s something that’s going to open me up to outside criticism, likely rejection, and possible failure.

I’m writing a book.

It’s taken a while, but I have an idea. I have a main character who’s taken grasp in my head as well as several supporting ones (I promise I’m not schizophrenic). I’m working on supporting documents, character maps, and I have a playlist (because obviously, there must be music).

It gives you WINGS.

I hope to use this space as a sort of look into my writing process — which I’ll go ahead and tell you, won’t be very interesting. Random internet browsing, doing research on the most peculiar things (after a rousing game of Six Degrees of Wikipedia), and lots of caffeine ingestion. But I have a goal, and by year’s end, I’m going to accomplish it.

It’s going to be a wild ride! But I’m glad to have y’all there with me.

In defense of urban fantasy

A lot of blogs I follow have ‘themes,’ such as cooking blogs, travel blogs, entertainment blogs. For those of you who saw the title of this post and thought, “WTH?” then I’ll just say this — the theme for this blog is ‘My Life’ therefore the posts are varied in subject.

Last night, I drove to Baltimore for a book signing. Those of you who know me know that I’m a voracious reader. I love reading! If I like a book, I’ll start reading and likely won’t stop until I finish — which is the reason my parents refused to get me a NOOK until I finished grad school. Ignoring homework in favor of reading novels… yeah, I’d probably have done that.

Sorry, I’m not sorry.

The author in question was Kim Harrison, author of the The Hollows series (also known as the Rachel Morgan series). Her tenth book in the series, A Perfect Blood, was released on Tuesday, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet her in person.

So, I braved both the rain and rush hour traffic on the Beltway to drive to Baltimore to meet one of my favorite authors. And you know what? It was so worth it.

Swag for the attendees -- Rachel's pack tattoo

When I got to the signing at 6:15 (it started at 7:00), my line number was #102. And here I thought I’d arrived decently early. It didn’t matter. I had the chance to meet and chat with (for two hours) Erika from Your Urban Fantasy, which was fantastic. It’s so nice to chat with someone who’s just as big a fan of the books as you are! We discussed our favorite characters, plot points, and who we hope Rachel ends up with at the end of the series (Trent).

But standing in line for two hours (why oh why did I wear my boots with heels?) totally paid off when I got to the front to meet one of my favorite authors.

I met her!

She was SO NICE! I’ve commented on her blog before, and she replied — how awesome is that? She maintains her own blog and replies to comments — but it was so cool to meet her in person. To tell her about how much I’ve loved seeing Trent (my favorite character) evolve over the past ten books in person was surreal. This woman — this amazing, talented writer — who takes time to listen and communicate with her fans… it was the best part of my month.

Those of you who know me know that I love to write, and one day, I hope to publish my own books. All I can say is that if my books are only a fraction as good as Kim’s, then I’ll be one happy writer.

Now, moving to a slightly different (yet relevant topic): why urban fantasy?

I get this question a lot — usually from my family. If they see I’m reading a book, their first question is usually, “Is that one of those weird vampire books?”

My question is: Why are vampire books (and fantasy books in general) considered weird?

I’ve made no bones about my love for Harry Potter, but those are far from the only fantasy books I enjoy. I’ve read nearly every book written by Anne Rice, enjoyed the Anita Blake books (up through Incubus Dreams, at least), and I’m getting into A Song of Ice and Fire — better known as the Game of Thrones series.

But yet, the voice of my mother asks, “Why do they appeal to you?”

It’s hard to succinctly define why these books are so appealing. But there are a few themes that ring true in nearly every single fantasy book I’ve ever read.

Strong characters: No one wants to read a book where the main character is a limp noodle — I’m looking at you, Twilight. The woman in fantasy books have a tendency to kick some serious ass, and it’s awesome! Rachel Morgan is the typical girl next door (er, witch next door), and while she often gets her own ass kicked as often as she’s doing the kicking, you can relate to her struggles. She doesn’t sit around and wait for the men in her life to come to her rescue — she’s out there, saving her own skin. Daenerys Targaryen grew from a young girl whose life was controlled by her older brother into a strong, confident woman — a khaleesi in her own right. And when Ron left, Hermione didn’t sit around and wait for him to come back. She helped Harry find the Horcruxes needed to kill Lord Voldemort.

Another world alongside our own: In The Hollows, you can get your insurance from werewolves. Witches sell charms that work better than asprin, and the most powerful bachelor in Cincinnati is secretly (or not so secretly) an elf. Hidden from humans until a virus wiped out a quarter of the world’ populations in the 1960s, Inderlanders (supernaturals) came out of the closet and helped restore order. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake is an “animator” — a person who temporarily raises the dead so they can be questioned for legal purposes. She’s also a licensed vampire hunter/executioner and a federal marshal. There’s another world running parallel to our own, which brings me to…

The mythology: In urban fantasy, the hero/heroine’s world is expanded upon with each passing book. I loved learning more about the origins of demons and elves in Kim Harrison’s books, how witches evolved from a curse put upon the demons by the elves during the last great war between the two species. The world of Harry Potter is so rich and incredibly detailed that the mind just boggles. There’s just so much possibility in these worlds; while reality might blow, you can pick up a fantasy novel and get lost in a different world for a time.

There’s a little bit of everything: You want romance? Action? Mystery? Danger? Magic? I need say no more.

Power: While it might seem like I’m solely an urban fantasy fan, that’s not the case. But in UF books, the individual has real, tangible power. Rachel Morgan (I keep going back to her, but I love those books so much) has the power to end the war between the elves and demons, to restore balance in Inderlander society. Her actions have rippling consequences, both good and bad. This is someone whose life is (in my opinion) so much more exciting than my own.

Imagination: These books are so fantastically not reality that I’m drawn to them. When I read a book, I like to escape. And reading books about normal, everyday life just doesn’t always appeal to me. I live that everyday — I want to read something new. Something exciting. 🙂

Love.

So, what do you think? What sort of books appeal to you, and why?

Thank you, Mr. Potter

A preface:  If you have not read the last Harry Potter novel, please step away from the computer.  Bookmark this post and come back later.  I promise, I can wait.

Alright.  Spoilerphobes gone?  Good.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon.  I’m sure there are statistics as to how many copies of the books have been sold, how many languages they’ve been translated into, and how much money the films have grossed.  Honestly, I’m not an entertainment writer, and I don’t really care about all that.  This is what Harry Potter—both the books and the movies—have meant to me personally.

I’m a voracious reader.  I always have been, I always will be, and anyone who has known me for longer than five minutes can testify to that.  Right now, even, it’s a struggle to not pick up A Game of Thrones and start reading because I need to devote all my time and brainpower to my Independent Study paper.

Me. Only minus the singing Frenchmen and the future princess thing

August 8th.  It’s going down.

Ahem.  Sorry, where was I?

Yes.  Voracious reader, that I am.  Any books I could get my hands on, I devoured as fast as I could.  Seriously, I love love love to read.  My fourth and fifth grade teachers still like to remark that I was the only student they’d ever had who tried to read between questions on spelling tests.

I was eleven when I first discovered Harry Potter, which is a lovely bit of symmetry since Harry discovered his magical heritage at the age of eleven.   Scholastic was holding a Book Fair at my school, and for reasons I can’t recall, I had a coupon from one of my teachers for a free book.  This shouldn’t be surprising, but I loved when we had Book Fairs.  They were one of my favorite events of the school year, and I used to beg my mom for a little bit of extra money to get a new book.

But at this Book Fair, nothing was jumping out at me.  Nearly all the books there were either:  a) uninteresting, b) too juvenile, or c) I’d already read them.  Nothing looked like anything I would like—and considering I read just about every genre of book, that’s saying something.

Until I saw it.

Love

It was an unassuming paperback, and there were only two or three copies sitting on a table.  It wasn’t a skinny little book, but it wasn’t very large by my standards, either.  I picked it up, intrigued by the cover art—a boy on a broomstick, a cape flying behind him as he reached out for a little round ball.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the title proclaimed.

I had never heard of it.

Nevertheless, the back blurb sounded interesting, so I redeemed my coupon for that book and headed off to study hall.  Presumably, one was supposed to study during study hall, but I usually spent my time reading or drawing (funny, can I do that for a career?).

The first Harry Potter book was an easy, engaging read, and I quickly found myself engrossed in the world that JK Rowling had created.  Despite the teasing from my classmates—I was odd enough, and reading a book about a boy wizard made me even weirder, in their eyes—I kept on and quickly finished the first three books of the series (as they were the only ones out at the time).

Flash forward one year, and two things happened simultaneously.  One, our Reading teacher announced we were going to read the first two Harry Potter books in class.  (My junior high self was thinking, ‘Yeah, who’s weird now?  Huh?  Huh?’)

And two, the first book was going to be made into a movie.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted what happened after.  The mania that set in, the midnight book releases with costumes and role playing, or the way that the world of Harry Potter took our world—the Muggle world—by storm.

As I grew older, I remember begging my parents to drive me to the Sam’s Club in Knoxville the day each new book was released.  (As a warehouse store, I knew that Sam’s would always have enough copies, and there would be no need to reserve one or stand in line).  I specifically remember picking up the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, on the way home from a cattle show.   It nearly killed me, but I resolved not to start reading until we’d arrived home, and I was able to get all the dirt and other unsavory barn things off my hands.

I remember where I was when Dumbledore died (4-H Roundup at UTK, summer of 2005).  My poor roommate—who didn’t read the books—probably thought I was crazy, lying on the bed with tears streaming down my cheeks as I turned those last few pages.

I cried when Hedwig died.

Mad-Eye Moody.

Remus and Tonks.

Snape.

Fred Weasley.

I know it may sound ridiculous to some—meaning my mother, mostly—to cry over the death of fictional characters.  But the beauty of JKR’s world was, they didn’t seem fictional at all.  As I’d grown up, they’d grown up as well.  While I know their world doesn’t exist, her words painted such a vivid picture in my mind that, while I read, it was easy to suspend disbelief and think that it all was real.

My best friends think I’m nuts.  They don’t understand how I can be so devoted to a series of books, for crying out loud.  And you know, all I can say is this:  if you’ve never been swept away in something grander than yourself, never let your imagination run away with you because of the written word, then I pity you.

Harry Potter is more than just a series of books.  It’s more than just a set of eight films.  It’s a part of my childhood, something I’ve loved dearly since I was little, and something I’m sure that I will continue loving for the rest of my life.  I know that what it means to me pales in comparison to what it means to others—the actors, for example, and JKR herself—but it is what it is.  If by some stroke of luck, I ever have a piece of fiction published, I can only hope that it is a fraction as well-received as JRK’s illustrious work.

So for the next week, I’ll continue on much as I have for the past little while. I’ll work, and I’ll go home and write my Independent Study paper and work on my Capstone project.  I’ll stress about my job search, and I’ll look forward to seeing my family again in August.

But next Thursday night, I’m going to suspend my stress and worries.  I’m going to leave grad school at home.  I’m going to pull down my green and silver scarf out of the attic—even though it’s about 98 degrees in D.C.—and I’m going to the midnight showing of the final Harry Potter film.  I’ll probably sob like a small child, but it’s warranted.  As the movie posters have proclaimed for the past year, “It all ends here.”

After almost thirteen years, it's really over.

So thank you, Jo Rowling, for sharing with us your genius.  Thank you for giving us Mr. H. Potter of Number 4, Privet Drive, Little Whinging.  Thank you to all the actors for bringing this world to life on screen for all of us to see.  And thank you to everyone else who had a hand in this rich and fantastic world.

And thank you, Mr. Potter.  Thank you for being my friend.