This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event during which the entire book community- booksellers, librarians, publishers, authors- celebrates the freedom to read. I believe that everyone should have access to whatever books they want to read, so I'm all for Banned Books Week and everything it stands for. I don't think any of my books have ever been banned, but I do have one that's been challenged quite a bit- my picture book biography of Hank Aaron, Henry Aaron's Dream.
When Henry Aaron's Dream was released in March of 2010, the overall response was really great. It got a couple starred reviews, some good newspaper coverage, and even ended up making some "best books" lists and winning a few awards.
But not everyone was pleased. Early on, I started hearing from readers who were deeply offended by my book. Some of these comments came in letters and emails to me. Some came in online customer reviews (which I know I should never read but I always do anyway). It was even formally challenged in one library (that I'm aware of), though in the end the committee decided not to ban it from the library.
The problem wasn't the story or the art, but the fact that I had included the n-word in a book for children. The most common concern was that kids would read the word, then decide to start using the word themselves.
I received an email from a man who is, among other things, the coordinator of Cultural Diversity for the Springfield Public School System in Springfield, Missouri. In his email, he wrote:
"I believe that [your use of the word “nigger” in your book] is really quite inappropriate, especially for young children. I am guessing by using this word with young minds that you are trying to empower them to use this word in their classrooms, cafeterias, playgrounds, and with their friends. I really believe that you could have told this story without using “nigger” in your book.
I know that my email will not mean much to you but children of this generation deserve much better."
I'm quoting this email not only because it articulates the concerns most people seemed to have, but also because it clearly shows that the people who were challenging my book weren't closed-minded, book-banning wackadoos. For the most part, they seemed like good people who were genuinely concerned about their kids, or the kids they worked with.
Still, I felt like I needed to defend my book and I didn’t agree with the presumption he made that my aim was to empower children to use the word. My aim was to be as honest as possible in telling the story of what Henry Aaron overcame.
Below is my response to this particular email.
Thank you for your message. I can tell you care deeply about the kids you work with. I don't expect to change your mind about this, but please let me try to explain why that word is in this book.
I considered replacing the word with “bad names” or “terrible names”, but any other way I tried to write those two sentences sounded softer and gentler than what really happened. And in trying to describe what Jackie Robinson endured in 1947 in just a few lines of text, and what Henry Aaron endured when he broke the color barrier in the South Atlantic League in 1953, I didn't want to minimize it or sugar-coat it by making it sound not quite as bad.
There is no doubt that it is one of the most vile words in the English language. I’m even uncomfortable reading that part of Henry Aaron’s Dream aloud and hearing the word come out of my mouth. But in writing this book about a young man who grew up in the deep south in the 1930’s and 40’s and faced unspeakable racism and hatred as he pursued his childhood dream of becoming a big-league baseball player, I wanted to tell his story in the most honest, straightforward way I could. And that word, I felt, was a terrible but necessary part of the story.
The fact is, when Henry Aaron was a 19-year-old kid trying to pursue his dream of being a baseball player, he was subjected to hearing that word, that most vile word in the English language, shouted at him on a daily basis. They didn’t just call him “bad names”, or “terrible names”. They called him the worst name of all. And I believe that fact helps illustrate the incredible courage that this young man showed just by taking the field each day and following his dream. And that’s why I chose to include the word in my book.
You're wrong about your email not meaning much to me. It means a lot, especially coming from someone who clearly cares about children and works with kids in tough situations who must face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These are the kids I had in mind when I wrote this book. Believe me, my goal was not to empower them to use the n-word in school and on the playground as you suggest, but to empower them to feel like they can overcome anything, just like Henry Aaron did.
For what it's worth, Henry Aaron's Dream has been out for over a year and I have yet to hear of any case where a kid read the book and then used the n-word in the cafeteria, playground, or anywhere. And you can bet I'd hear about it if it happened (As you know, I'm easy to find). I have great respect for the intelligence of my readers, and I believe that if someone is mature enough to learn about the civil rights movement, racism, and some of the uglier aspects of our nation's history, then they're mature enough to read that word in context and understand that the racist baseball fans of the 1940's and 1950's are not to be admired or emulated. If anyone reads Henry Aaron's Dream and comes away from the experience wanting to call somebody a nigger, then I have failed miserably at my job. But I think it's clear to the kids reading my book that Henry Aaron and Jackie Robinson are the heroes of this story.
I think that most kids in grades 3 and up can read Henry Aaron's Dream and appreciate the fact that I'm telling them the truth, and not some baby version of history. I agree that this book probably isn't for young children. A few people have told me that they read Henry Aaron’s Dream aloud to young children but chose to replace the word with “bad names” or “terrible names”, which seems like a fine solution for parents, teachers and librarians who want to share the story with children but worry that their kids might be too young to have a conversation about the historical connotations of the word.
Again, I appreciate your message and I respect your opinion. I've heard from a couple other people who share your opinion, and I've lost plenty of sleep over this. The last thing I ever wanted was for this book to have a negative impact on any child. I hope you're still able to share the book with some of the kids you work with, and I hope it can have a positive impact on them.
A couple years have passed since I wrote that email. I've gotten a few similar messages since then, and provided similar responses where appropriate (I know better than to respond to customer reviews online).
But slowly, I have come to realize something: he was right.
Not about my intentions, he was way off on that: honestly, the last thing I ever wanted was for any kid to feel empowered to use the n-word on the playground because of what I had written. But he was right about the fact that I really could have told this story without using that word.
Including the word may have made the book stronger and more authentic, but a good picture book, especially a good non-fiction picture book, needs to be more than that. It needs to be shared in classrooms, and read aloud during story time. It needs to be given as a birthday gift to a kid who might not be crazy about reading but is crazy about baseball. And if the presence of that word made countless teachers, librarians and parents unwilling to share it with children, then what was the point? I've tried replacing the word with "terrible names" while reading it aloud, and I've found that the story reads fine. In fact, it's better. Because afterward, all the discussion can be about the amazing, inspiring story of Henry Aaron, instead of about why the author decided to use a bad word.
In February, Candlewick will publish a new edition of Henry Aaron's Dream, as part of their Candlewick Biographies series, geared toward schools. After much thought, I asked my editor if we could remove the n-word from this new edition. I told her my reasons, and she agreed.
I stand by my reasons for including the word in the first edition of my book, but I've come to believe that the word is preventing the story from getting into the hands of its audience; it creates a situation where teachers don't want to read it aloud in class, and librarians don't want to check it out to kids, because they know parents will be upset. And then the worst thing of all happens: kids who might otherwise benefit from Henry Aaron's story never end up hearing it. I believe changing the text for this particular edition is the right thing to do.
I think of this edit to the new edition of Henry Aaron's Dream as a revision that gets a worthy story a wider audience in the world and puts the focus where it belongs—not on whatever hate-filled slurs spewed from the mouths of bigots more than sixty years ago, but on the awesome achievements of a living legend whose life and work can inspire a whole new generation.