Please join me in welcoming back Mary Ann Rivers, author of The Story Guy, to the blog today! Mary Ann was kind enough to write the essay Ban the Alphabet in honor of Banned Book Week. Thank you Mary Ann!!
When I was in the fifth grade, I was underdeveloped and awkward. I had long hair that terminated in ropes of tangles around my ribs. I had to wear glasses, and because of my family situation, they weren’t glasses for children, but worn, overlarge, and owlish glasses meant for an adult. This was the year that many of the other girls had started to dress a bit older, experiment with some version of the clothes worn by their sisters and siblings’ friends in high school. I had my usual jeans and t-shirts to wear, a pinching bra I didn’t need, but didn’t dare go without lest the boys comment on my nipples. My teacher was a disco baby, glamorous, permed, and looking back, often hungover, and I was kind of the bane of her classroom.
Here’s the thing—I didn’t care.
This was also the year I had worked out a world of my own, away from my family, away from school. Two worlds, really. One world was in an oversold and abandoned suburban development lot that had been overtaken with scrub and third-growth trees. The other was in the library, and that was the year I discovered romance novels.
I had found, in the basement, an old army shoulder bag of my father’s. I could cinch the strap so that it sat, no matter how full of books, in the small of my back while I rode my bike. In my mind, no one would suspect that the stiff drab-colored bag held paperbacks every color of the rainbow, embossed with gilded titles I would copy into my diary with the date of check out and a coded rating system that included how many characteristics I thought I shared with the heroine.
Of course, my true stealth was that no one pays a lot of attention to underdeveloped girls with tangled hair tearing along the back streets on their bikes. I hadn’t entirely realized, yet, that girlhood was invisible, the best, strongest parts of it, anyway. I had already learned about the things that a girl like me wished were invisible, but were not.
I protected what I could.
By then, I had read Katherine Paterson’s A Bridge to Terabithia and so when I would point the front wheel of my bike into the rough, foot-wide trails of the abandoned subdivision, it’s Jess and Leslie I would most often think of. I was a little uneasy with those paperbrick novels from the library, less confused than I should have been about parts of them, but walking my way through those parts in a different and less violent context than I had known. The green light that filtered into the lots where I escaped was some kingdom of actual childhood, quiet and private and ruled by the most innocent parts of my imagination.
By then, too, I knew I could learn almost everything I needed to from books. Often, books affirmed what I had figured out for myself. Jess said there “was the rule that you never mixed up troubles at home with life at school. When parents were poor or ignorant or mean, or even just didn’t believe in having a TV set, it was up to their kids to protect them.” Jess was right, and if kids couldn’t protect their parents, then you worked on some magic to protect yourself, because “life was delicate as a dandelion. One little puff from any direction, and it was blown to bits.”
By then, I had been in love. His name was D–, the smallest boy in the fifth grade, and the only other kid in my class who wore glasses. He seemed to me somehow impossibly smart and fearless. He would answer the teacher’s questions without raising his hand, had in fact, on more than one memorable occasion, called the teacher by her first name, and made it sound somehow natural. He could climb the rope in gym, all the way to the gym’s ceiling, and would terrify the gym teacher by swinging out an arm as if to grab onto the gym’s rafters and scramble across the ceiling like an ape in the canopy. “That’s enough!” She would boom, and he’d grin down at us from above, and test the rafter one more time before sliding down the rope with the soles of his cons turned in, trying to make smoke from friction and rubber. It wasn’t the kind of love I was learning about from romance novels, though it sometimes gave me the same low-down flip, it was something more like something that was “too real and too deep to talk about, even to think about very much.” In fact, my diary from that time is rare to mention him, but when it does, it is always at the end of an entry, and is never more than a mundane “D—talked to me today, in the lunch line.”
Too deep and too real. Nothing like the romance novels I read in my closet, a flashlight anchored to my head with a plastic headband. The novels were countries I had never been to, D—was the street where I lived and all of its minutia, how the clothes in my closet smelled, the scar on my forehead I liked to worry. Things known and not spoken of for their intimacy.
By then, most subversive of all, I had been afraid I would die, and I had wanted to. Diaries and romance novels and secret trails in the woods don’t tell a child very much about death, but books for children do. The first time I had been afraid, I rode my bike, hurting and bleeding, all the way to the furthest boundary of the development, where there was the basement and foundation of a house that had never been built. The concrete shell in the earth was scribbled over with graffiti and the edges were thick with weeds and poison ivy, but I bumped my bike down a spill of dirt that made a natural ramp into the basement.
I sat down there, leaning against a corner, looking at the sky. I cried, and I thought about how I was too old to cry, anymore. I wondered how far away I could get on my bike. I wondered if my fourth grade teacher, who had taken an interest in me, would remember me enough to talk to her about my problems, what I was afraid of, and if she could do anything. I wondered about a librarian, if she was too old to be a friend, or to trust.
I gravitated towards books that made me cry. I had loved A Summer to Die, and Where the Red Fern Grows, and Bridge to Terabithia. What I loved in those books, besides the permission they gave me to cry and cry, were the adults. The adults who were at first absent, at first abandoned by the protagonists for the tantalizing worlds they had discovered, and then, when those kids were visited by the worst they could imagine, the adults became present and important and understanding, which seemed like a magic more astonishing to me, and a fantasy more compelling, than any Terabithia ruled by child kings and queens.
“When my husband died, people kept telling me not to cry,” Jess’s fifth grade teacher told him. “People kept trying to help me forget . . . So I realize, that if it’s hard for me, how much harder it must be for you.”
I think there was planted some seed of hope that if even I could not find that understanding in the kingdom of childhood, I would live to bestow it as an adult. That I would remember what the privacy of childhood had given me and what books had trusted me with, and I would assume the agency of children to love and to appreciate death and the stakes of living.
Bridge to Terabithia was number eight on the American Library Journal’s list of most banned books from 1990-2000, and number twenty from 2001-2009. Adults have done their best since it was published in 1977 to protect children from Jess and his love of his music teacher Miss Edmunds, from his rough and mean life of crushing poverty. Adults did not want children to hear Jess’s loud if unspoken fear that his father believed him homosexual because he preferred to draw above all things. Adults especially did not want children to read about the death of Jess’s best friend, Leslie, who was the fastest kid in fifth grade, and the bravest, and who “made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there—like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.”
As if children do not know love, or fear, or death, and are in fact, not protected from those things at all, ever, and experience them as often as adults do, because really, where is the bridge between childhood and adulthood? When is it that we walk across it? What is the rites of one kingdom that give you passage into the next? Is it a divide that we swing across and hope the rope doesn’t break? Where then, should the guardians stand, exactly? Is a book about love permissible, but not one with love and fear? Or are there fears exclusive to children that can be written about, read about, and fears common only to adults? Is it only adults who die and is it only adults who encounter their deaths?
When I read a romance novel, scabbed knees and too-big eyes, in the depths of a closet, what country was I occupying?
When I was hurt and invisible, small and mistrusted, when no adult would welcome me, where was I received?
A book is no more suppressible than the life of a child. It can be no more hidden than we can remove ourselves from death. My agency is now, as it has ever been—mine. Even the long and terrifying moments it was stolen, it still bore my name.
Banning a book is an action that assumes boundaries where there is only humanity and everything that it feels, from the very beginning. From the alphabet. Try to ban the alphabet. We have already learned all the letters. We have already heard all of their sounds.
Mary Ann Rivers was an English and music major and went on to earn her MFA in creative writing, publishing poetry in journals and leading creative-writing workshops for at-risk youth. While training for her day job as a nurse practitioner, she rediscovered romance on the bedside tables of her favorite patients. Now she writes smart and emotional contemporary romance, imagining stories featuring the heroes and heroines just ahead of her in the coffee line. Mary Ann Rivers lives in the Midwest with her handsome professor husband and their imaginative school-aged son. The Story Guy is her debut novella.