A report by Little Willow
Sponsored in part by The Edge of the Forest, the number 3, Kelly H., Angela N., and readers/viewers like you.
On March 4th, 2007, in Oklahoma, a book challenge was submitted to the school board of Bartlesville Public Schools in Oklahoma. Someone felt that a book had "no moral fiber" and asked for it to be removed "at once."
The book in question: The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson, a bestselling young adult novel about three best friends whose once-balanced triumvirate tips and shifts when two of the teens start secretly dating each other.
Does that sound threatening? No. Scandalous? No. Realistic? Completely. A countless number of people have dated their friends or at least considered it. Some have great relationships. Some find they are better suited as friends and stop dating. Some break up and stop being friends altogether.
The Bermudez Triangle was not the first novel to address interfriend dating, and it won't be the last either. Many books, especially those with a female protagonist, include a character who falls for her best friend. I could name a dozen right now, and then a dozen more, and then a dozen more. This concept is pretty timeless, and it is definitely not limited to books. How many television shows have shown best pals falling for each other? How many films? How many plays?
And how many readers and viewers root for the protagonists to get together? How many critics and consumers cheer when that boy or girl finally notices that other boy or girl?
WHY THIS BOOK?
What really sets The Bermudez Triangle apart from many other books in this category is its quality. I value intelligent, realistic, and thought-provoking storytelling, and that is what Maureen Johnson provides time and time again in her novels. Written in third person, The Bermudez Triangle allows readers to get into the minds of all three main characters. Here is a line of narrative from Mel's perspective:
Nothing really ever changed in her life - things just got bigger, longer, and increasingly complicated.
I write down my favorite quotes from books on paper scraps and makeshift bookmarks, then transfer them to a typed file on my computer. I read about a book a day, and maybe one out of every thirty books I read gets the honor of being added to that particular file. I enjoyed the writing in The Bermudez Triangle so much that it got its own file.
"My inner raccoon likes the shiny thing," he said while looking apologetic.
If I had a nickel for every time I quoted that following line, I would be rich. The speaker is Parker, my favorite of Maureen's supporting characters to date. (1) Parker is funny, self-deprecating, and fallible. Perfectly flawed, perfectly adorable.
THE CENSOR SHIP HAS SALES
I am really trying not to get on my soapbox and rant about the banning of books in general. In an effort to curb that urge, I'll simply quote Jonatha Brooke's fabulous song Hearsay:
And in the end, does anybody really win?
There's no poetry, when there's poison in the wind
And it's all well and good
To ask forgiveness when you've sinned
But where will it end?
Where will it end?
There are plenty of books that I do not like, but I do not pull them out of the hands of others, especially if they have not yet had the chance to read the books and make up their own minds. The pen is mightier than the sword, and no matter how many times we stab and and cut and censor a book with that sword, the story will remain strong. It may even get stronger. Controversy stirs up interest. People can become rather curious about the forbidden.
Copies of The Bermudez Triangle are flying off the shelves in bookstores and libraries and into the hands, eyes, and hearts of readers. New readers want to see what all the fuss is about, and loyal readers want to show their support for the book and its author. Multiple copies of The Bermudez Triangle have been sent to public libraries in Bartlesville in an effort to allow and encourage even more people to read it. At the time of this writing, the online bookstore at Amazon.com only had one copy of the trade paperback and one copy of the hardcover left in stock, with "more on the way." Luckily, the book is being reprinted on May 17th as part of Penguin's Splashproof summer promotion, one of at least a dozen bestselling titles bearing a new 100% waterproof cover.
THE POWER OF THE INTERNET
Maureen has been regularly updating her readers about the challenge at her blog. There, it has become known as The Battle of Bartlesville.
Over the past week, a customer of mine has come in every single day to discuss this incident with me. She learned about the banning through Brotherhood 2.0, a video blog set up by brothers John and Hank Green. Since Brotherhood 2.0 is a phenomenon all its own (one that deserves its own article, come to think of it, I'll be brief. The brothers post a new video blog every weekday as part of a year-long experiment in textless communication. John writes books, Hank runs EcoGeek, and they both crack me up. I don't know the boys personally(2), but Maureen does. She supports their efforts, and they have returned that support.
Many authors and readers have written to the school board, starting an informal write-in campaign. John Green wrote a letter and posted it at his blog. On May 2nd, he spoke about the book banning in his video blog, saying, "There is nothing in it that is inappropriate for teen readers. For that matter, there's not really anything that's inappropriate for, like, ten-year-olds."
I agree. I think the book is perfectly fine for teen readers. There's no violence in the book. It contains nothing vulgar, nothing crude, and nothing explicit. If The Bermudez Triangle were a film, it may get a PG or PG-13 rating, but there is no way that it would be rated R.
In the aforementioned video, John went on to say, "[I]t is absolutely ridiculous to ban The Bermudez Triangle from a high school library when it doesn't even contain, like, any dirty words or dirty scenes or anything. All it contains is gay characters."
That's right. The three corners of The Bermudez Triangle are made up of girls. That means that the two best friends who start going out together are both female.
Why didn't I mention this earlier?
Because it shouldn't matter.
But, sadly, apparently, it does to some people.
THE STORY CONTINUES
The parent who challenged the book was particularly offended by the book's "homosexual content, unsuitable for children (pages 105 and 363), and underage drinking."
When the author heard that her book had been challenged, she immediately looked up these offensive pages and was left baffled. When she noted the happenings at her blog, she noted that "[t]hey aren't even kissing pages. They're just people talking."
I checked these pages too. Do you know what they made me do? They made me go back and re-read my favorite passages in the book.
"What page of the script are you on?" Parker asked. "I think I just walked into a very special episode of Seventh Heaven."
Good times, good times. Oh, that Parker.
In late April, the book was pulled from the Mid-High library. Maureen reported this on her blog and shared her thoughts on the matter.
"Look, I'm not saying The Bermudez Triangle is the greatest book ever written. It's not. I happen to like it, but if you don't, it's okay. If you want to criticize the writing, by all means do so. I can take it. Maybe I'll even learn something. But this single person is trying to get it removed simply because it talks about homosexuality. Forget the sex thing. There isn't any."
She continued: "I happen to find homophobia shocking and appalling. I think it is morally corrupt. I would like to see it removed. Where is my form?" (3)
It sounds as though the main if not only objection some people have to this book is the fact that two people of the same gender have romantic feelings towards one another. I have to ask: If the name Mel was short for Melvin, if the people dating were of opposite genders, would that be okay in the eyes of the school board? Would this book be challenged if it was about a boy and a girl who start dating and do nothing more than kiss? Probably not.
If all books with boy-girl relationships were challenged, censored, or banned, then removed from libraries and stores, the shelves would be empty. Well, maybe a few books would remain in the picture book section, but classic and contemporary fiction would be fairly wiped out.
There would be no Wuthering Heights. No Little Women. No Great Expectations. Shakespeare? Sorry, not sold here. Austen? Get lost. Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Romeo & Juliet, and perhaps all other books with ampersands in the title would be gone. Most beloved fairy tales, what with their blatant support of heterosexual marriage, would be removed - and there would be no happily ever afters.
It wouldn't stop there. They would even take away The Great Gatsby and Anne of Green Gables, at which point I would abandon my professional tone and calm demeanor and simply start screaming (4) about intolerance, injustice, green lights, and carrots.
TELL ME WHY
Do people dare to dismiss titles with same-sex relationships because they think that there are fewer of them, so it's easier to miss them? Consider the overtones in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Think of the powerful story The Color Purple. Note works by Truman Capote. Gee, no one has ever questioned the main characters' relationship in A Separate Peace. Oh, no. Not at all.
You can't tell me that if someone asked for this book to be removed from the school simply because Nina is tall or because the name Avery is uncommon, it wouldn't be utterly preposterous.
It's so easy to get mad about all of this, but I want people to focus on the positives: on the quality of the writing, the intelligence of its author, and the outpouring of support.
On Friday, March 11th, The Community Examiner-Enterprise published an article entitled To Ban or Not to Ban? written by Jessica Miller. It details the latest happenings in Bartlesville and includes quotes from Angela Rader, the parent who challenged the book, Dr. Gary W. Quinn, the Bartlesville Public Schools Superintendent, and Maureen Johnson.
When the author learned that Rader had submitted a petition signed by 164 people who feel that the book should be removed from the library, Maureen started a petition of her own - two, in fact. One is for the world at large, while the other is for the people of Bartlesville - for those who do NOT want it to be removed from the Bartlesville Mid-High library.
The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson is being challenged/banned at a high school in Oklahoma because some people are claiming that the book is full of naughtiness and naked encounters. These claims are unfounded. There's only kissing, and even that is minimal. Furthermore, banning this particular book, let alone any book, makes little to no sense to me, and I do not believe they should prohibit people from reading this book. My review of the book, written years ago, closes with this: "Once you're in THE BERMUDEZ TRIANGLE, you won't want to leave."
Do yourself a favor, gentle readers. Read the book. Think for yourself. Do not let the negative opinions of others cloud your judgment or sway your vote.
For the latest news, please visit Maureen's blog within her website and look for entries tagged Bartlesville.
Maureen's posts make people not only laugh, but take action. Her coverage of The Battle of Bartlesville has inspired people to write posts of their own about the matter, to read the book, to give the book to friends, to speak up, to speak out, to think, to consider, to question - to do something.
I can only hope this post of mine encourages people to do the same.
FOOTNOTES AND CROOKED TOES
(1) Clio, you're right up there too, but your book, Girl at Sea, doesn't come out until June 2007. I promise to give you plenty of airtime at that time because you are tres cool.
(2) I met John once a year ago. I know he knows of me online, and that he knows me as Little Willow, but I do not know if he remembers having met me. There were lots of fangirls present at the time.
(3) Referring to the form filed against this book, which is called A Citizen's Request for Removal of Instructional Materials.
(4) You don't want to make me scream. I'm loud. Just ask those who have brought up The Battle of Bartlesville with me in the past month.
SIGN THE PETITION
If you are from outside of Bartlesville and wish to show your support for The Bermudez Triangle and Maureen Johnson, please sign this petition!
If you are actually from Bartlesville or neighboring communities, please sign the local petition!
I interviewed Maureen Johnson in June 2007. The night before we spoke, she'd received some interesting news. Here's the scoop, directly from Maureen:
I got a note from the local librarian -- the woman who brought all of this to light and who resigned her position over this mess. We've been waiting for weeks and weeks to hear what the committee recommended about the book. They finally decided -- after being pummeled with letters from around the world, and after they were caught violating public policy by exceeding their authority and pulling the book without telling the public -- that Bermudez belongs on the 'reserve shelf.' You'll need parental permission to check it out for 'classroom purposes.' Plus, they want to have some kind of day each year where the parents come in and monitor the library. (This part of their letter was written in a strange way and hard to understand.) This has a bad sound to me. They seem to be suggesting -- and this is just what I'm taking from this -- that parents should come in once a year and see what they approve of. It sounds like they want to put more on the naughty shelf.
I didn't think they could make it worse, but they did. So, the book isn't banned -- you just need a note to look at it. Until then, you can't even get at it.
I always want to accentuate the positive in life because silver linings are SHINY. I try not to be wholly negative. So - deep breath - this is not a solution, not an equal/even compromise, but at least the book has not been completely banned or removed.
However, by not allowing patrons to freely check out and read the book, the powers that be are causing another series of problems and lies. In sixth grade, my teacher* wouldn't allow students to read Stephen King books without expressed written permission from their parents, so kids simply forged notes. My teacher was so busy creating and enacting that 'permission necessary' rule for the King books that she forgot about the existence of other books and authors, and my classmates snickered as they freely passed around Christopher Pike books with the naughtier passages marked.
* It should be noted that this was the same teacher who refused to believe I read dozens of books every month and graded my book reports very harshly. Let's not talk about her anymore.