Winnie Salamon discusses her thoughts on Censorship
I’ve been thinking a lot about censorship lately. Mainly because my new YA novel, Pretty Girls Don't Eat has caused some controversy.
Just recently a reviewer emailed my publisher and suggested a sticker be placed on the front cover warning readers under thirteen to avoid my book. I laughed at first, joking that I was now like a badass rock-star. But once the novelty wore off, I mostly felt disappointed.
Censorship has been has long been an issue for YA authors and publishers. It’s our natural instinct to want to protect children. Well-loved novels such as Harry Potter, The Catcher in The Rye, even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have come under fire at one time or another. As YA booms, so does discussion about what is and isn’t acceptable for our young people to read.
When I wrote Pretty Girls Don’t Eat, controversy was the last thing from my mind. Sadly, like many girls and women, I grew up uncomfortable in my body, constantly feeling that I should lose weight and that being fat was the worst thing a girl could be. The world around me, from Dolly magazine, to the kids at school, confirmed this opinion.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I decided to write the story I wish I could have read when I was a teenager. A book that looks honestly and unflinchingly at the difficulty so many of us have accepting the imperfections of our bodies. I also wanted to highlight the ridiculousness of the obsession our society has with physical beauty and with the diet industry in general. I wanted to say that sure, you can lose weight, but don’t expect it to be the life-changing transformation dieting is so often made out to be.
My main character, Winter Mae Jones doesn’t have an easy time of it. She abuses laxatives and ends up in hospital. Descriptions of copious amounts of time spent on the toilet feature during this phase of Winter’s life. It certainly isn’t glamorous.
I thought long and hard about including laxative abuse in my novel. Ultimately, I chose to write about it because it happens. Staying silent, pretending that it doesn’t exist won’t stop people from doing it. Placing a warning sticker on the front cover simply undermines the ability of young people to read critically, to self-censor, to decide for themselves what is and isn’t okay for them as an individual.
Nobody knows this better, perhaps, than author Peter Vu.
Peter was diagnosed with a brainstem glioma when he was just six years old. Now nineteen, his debut novel, Paper Cranes Don’t Fly has recently been released. Inspired by the two-and-a-half months he spent recovering from brain surgery when he was fifteen years old, Paper Cranes tells the story of terminally ill teenager, Adam Auttenberg.
There are few issues more confronting than a young person grappling with his or her mortality. From this perspective, Paper Cranes is uncompromising. There is no miracle cure for Adam. He has no choice other than to accept that he isn’t going to make it. And yet, Paper Cranes is also a life affirming story of friendship, unconditional love and the power of connecting with other human beings.
According to Tanith Carey, ‘teen sick-lit’ is a serious problem for YA fiction. She argues that ‘sick-lit’ exists as a way for publishers to profit from sensationalised suffering, that the blurbs for these books ‘trip over themselves to promise their books will drive readers ‘to tears’ or leave them ‘devastated’.’
This couldn’t be further from the truth, says Peter. Citing The Fault in Our Stars as his favourite novel, writing Paper Cranes not only gave him an outlet after his long stint in hospital, it allowed him to communicate his experience through the protective shield of a fictional narrative.
‘My friends don’t really ask me about my brain surgery,’ Peter says. ‘So it’s not something I talk about. It’s not that I mind talking about it, but I guess people don’t want to upset me.’
Paper Cranes enabled Peter to share his experience of facing a life-threatening illness, not only with friends and family, but also with a wider audience including those facing a similar situation to his character, Adam.
‘It took my best friend since grade prep months to read Paper Cranes,’ Peter says. ‘He found it very difficult. He didn’t really know everything I’d been through so it was hard for him.’
Even for those who don’t know Peter, Paper Cranes raises issues that are extremely challenging. And yet, does that mean we should pretend they don’t exist? That authors like Peter Vu should not share their stories because they are painful?
As Joan Bertin, Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, puts so eloquently: ‘Literature is not safe. Nor should it be. It is what unsettles us, what allows us to explore things we are afraid to talk about, and it allows us to share dangerous ideas in a safe way.’
The truth is, we cannot protect young people from the dark side of life, no matter how hard we try.