Saturday, July 21, 2007

Something to offend nearly everyone

Rebecca Wigod
Vancouver Sun
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Superb writing is being done for teenagers these days, but praiseworthy books often contain scenes that raise a protective adult's hackles. During a Vancouver panel discussion of censorship of young-adult literature, Ken Setterington gave Chris Crutcher's 1989 novel, Chinese Handcuffs, as an example.

In it, a teenage boy is lifted out of his wheelchair and forced to participate in a gang rape.

Afterward, he can't live with what has happened and shoots himself dead. That is, as they say, gritty. But look on and you'll see that the novel has a 41/2-star (out of five) approval rating, with some of the warmest reviews coming from kids.

Setterington, the Toronto Public Library's child and youth advocate, said the original publisher of Chinese Handcuffs was one known for its children's books, so librarians mistakenly shelved it in the children's department. Later, "we moved it to YA [young-adult]. I don't consider that censorship."

At Simon Fraser University's downtown campus, where the Summer Publishing Workshops hosted a day-long symposium on children's lit last Saturday, the Georgia Straight's John Burns named a YA novel he won't be sharing with his 11-year-old son -- Retribution, by B.C.'s Carrie Mac (who has a piece on page C1 today).

Himself the author of a YA novel (Runnerland), Burns insisted he (a) disagrees with censorship and (b) greatly admires Mac's writing. But he said the shooting-gallery scene made the decision for him. It's like the way he feels about Quentin Tarantino's movies: He's welcome to make them, but I don't have to go see them.

(I recognize the child-protecting impulse. A dozen years ago, I started reading American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, while on a summer camping trip. I stopped early, at the point where Patrick Bateman disembowels a beggar on the street. I hid the book from my daughter and son, then about 8 and 11, and it's been inside my night-table ever since.)

Susan Patron's Newbery Medal-winning The Higher Power of Lucky (which got more than the usual amount of publicity because a dog's scrotum is referred to as such in the second paragraph) inevitably entered the discussion. So did Scud, by Vancouver's Dennis Foon, who was present. It contains no real swear words, but its fake ones are so realistic that they got parents' backs up.

Author Kit Pearson recalled that when she was a children's librarian, she and her colleagues wore T-shirts that said, "I have something in my library that will offend everyone." Jo-Anne Naslund, an education librarian at the University of B.C., pointed out that the website of Parents Against Bad Books in Schools ( carries the passages parents find offensive. So much for hiding them in the night-table.

Setterington stressed the importance of context. "Read the books that are challenged -- not just the [parts in question], but the books in their entirety," he said. He knows whereof he speaks: He's the author of the children's book Mom and Mum Are Getting Married!

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Spook Country, the follow-up to Pattern Recognition, is coming in August from Vancouver's William Gibson. He was recently featured in Discover magazine, which described the novel as a high-style political techno-thriller set -- surprisingly, for a writer famous for telling the future -- in February 2006.

Sun Books Editor