Banned Books Week: Go Ask Alice
Go Ask Alice
September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.
If you’ve been living under a rock: Go Ask Alice is ostensibly the anonymously published diary of a teenager in the hippie-era ‘60s who, seeking nothing more than to fit in with her peers, ends up falling into a life of drug use, casual sex, prostitution, and eventually dies of a presumed overdose. In actuality, the book is fiction, and is attributed to a woman named Beatrice Sparks.
Why it gets banned: Drug use, pre-marital underage sex, prostitution, why do you think it got banned?
Why that’s dumb: As with so many of the books in this series, the expressed desire to protect children from harmful influences in books is ridiculous. The harmful influences aren’t in books. They’re in the world. Books only reflect what’s in the world and provide kids with opportunities to explore various ideas and life choices vicariously. That is, in a safe manner. Books give kids an opportunity to think about these things and ask themselves “is that the choice I want to make for myself,” without exposing themselves to the risk of making those choices. You don’t protect anybody by banning a book. All you do is force kids to learn those lessons the hard way, with real consequences.
Why this book is awesome: Of all seven titles on this list, Go Ask Alice is easily the most personal choice for me. The others I chose largely because of their standing as works of literature or because of the issues they tackle. I chose this one because of how it has affected my life. Warning, I’m going to get personal here, and if that bugs you, you should click your back-button now.
I was a teenager in the ‘80s. On the one hand, that decade showed me a world where movie stars and musicians—the cool people—smoked a lot of dope and snorted a lot of coke. The kids in my high school drank a lot of beer and, when they could get away with stealing it from their parents’ liquor cabinets, the hard stuff. This was the decade that invented Jello shots, which were all the rage at those weekend cool-kids parties. On the other hand, the chief voice against drugs in those years was that crazy, scary-looking, First Lady and astrology maven Nancy Reagan. She was the last person I’d ever want to listen to.
Just the same, I had no interest in drugs or alcohol. None. They revolted me. But, to fit in, I would have had to do those things. At that age, I didn’t understand why I felt that way about narcotics, why my internal compass pointed so strongly in the direction most opposite to what every element of both popular- and peer-culture would have me do.
If you’ve ever been a teenager, or if you are one now, you know how strong the desire to fit in can be.
Then I found Go Ask Alice in the public library, where I had to wait every afternoon after school for my parents to pick me up for the long drive out to where we lived. I didn’t have a library card, so I didn’t check it out, but I’d read a little bit every day. I’d find it, read, and carefully re-shelve it when it was time to go.
I know, now, that the book is fiction. But when I read it then, I thought it was real. What kid reads the fine print on the copyright page to double-check who the Library of Congress credits as the author? I thought it was real, and the book spoke to me. In the anonymous Alice’s circumstances and choices, what I found was affirmation for what I felt inside me. What I found was confirmation for my own instincts that drugs were a bad deal, and if everybody else wanted to do them then I guess that was their business, but I didn’t have to make that same choice. (Note: I really do believe that. If you want to take drugs, that’s your own personal business and I’m not going to condemn you for it. They’re just not for me.)
I eventually came to understand why my compass points the way it does. It was because of some horrible shit that happened to me when I was Scout Finch’s age, stuff that happened because of drugs I didn’t even take, stuff I couldn’t even remember until several years after reading Go Ask Alice. But in some nebulous way I can’t really explain, Go Ask Alice (and later, the movie My Own Private Idaho) gave me a kind of map through the minefield I was traversing.
That book, whether fact or fiction, gave me the strength to keep myself safe through those difficult years. Of course I can never know what would actually have happened if I’d never found that book. But neither can I escape the feeling that if I hadn’t found it, I likely wouldn’t have survived. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but that’s how I feel. This book is awesome because it saved my life.
I have a copy of this slim volume tucked away on our bookshelves at home. I hope my kids never need it. But if they do, I want it to be there for them.
Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.
If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:
Tuesday: Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955)
Wednesday: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960)
Thursday: Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut, 1963)
Today: Go Ask Alice (Anonymous, 1971)
September 30, 2011 16:16 UTC
Posted by Livia Blackburne on September 30, 2011 20:12 UTC
I’m against book banning, but this particular book annoys me because of its misleading premise. I read another Sparks “diary", and it just read like a scare tactic informercial.
Posted by Jason Black on September 30, 2011 23:05 UTC
There is some level on which I totally agree with you, there. In later years, I was quite disappointed to discover that the book wasn’t real. Or “real.” Not sure quite how to put it, because of course it is a real book. And in some alternate universe where I didn’t encounter it until I was 30 years old or something, I’m sure I would have had an entirely different reaction to it.
But that’s not what actually happened in my life. Like I said, this pick was a highly personal choice. I didn’t pick it because I think “scared straight” stories represent good literature, or that they even work, generally speaking. Certainly that’s not what it was for me. The story didn’t scare me straight; I already wanted to be straight (and we’re talking life choices here, not orientation).
I picked it because I cannot fully separate my perception of the book now from my perception of it when I was a damaged teenager, full of raw hurt that I didn’t understand, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed to read at that time. It’s on my #BannedBooksWeek list because no one can ever predict how a book might help someone else. If Alice had been banned from the Phoenix Public Library, it wouldn’t have been there for me and who knows what might have happened then.
Posted by Nancy Gerth on October 06, 2011 20:59 UTC
An interesting short look at censorship in the US between the World Wars: