A mother in Alamogordo, New Mexico, decided to celebrate Banned Books week a little late this year by asking her daughter’s school to pull Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from its reading list. She objected to the fact that her daughter, a sophomore student at the town’s lone high school, was expected to read the book after she found what she considers an “R-Rated” scene in the book.
For those of you who haven’t read it, Neverwhere is about a young man named Richard Mayhew who finds out that the London he thought he knew is actually divided into two worlds: London Above, where he lives, and London Below, which is a pseudo-medieval society completely invisible to London Abovers. When he attempts to help a girl from Below, he finds that his kindness not only puts him in mortal danger, but that he, too has become invisible. And it is a desperately lonely scene meant to drive Mayhew’s isolation home that has caused the controversy.
The passage in question, on page 86, shows Richard Mayhew unwittingly sharing a park bench with a pair of adulterous lovers, who cannot see him. “The man had his hand inside the woman’s jumper, and was moving it around enthusiastically, a lone traveller discovering an unexplored continent. ‘I want my life back,’ Richard told the couple.” The word fuck is then used three times by the couple, while the woman licks the mans face and “giggles drunkenly.” Their intentions are quite clear, but the scene’s intention is equally so. When put in context it’s very clearly meant to graphically show us Richard’s invisibility.
The mother of the student decided that this passage made the book inappropriate for teenagers, and went straight to the administration. Met with this single complaint, the school system pulled the book from the reading list, despite the fact that Neverwhere has been part of the curriculum since 2004, with no prior complaints. For a report on this incident, check out KRQE’s broadcast, or read The Alamogordo News.
“English Department at Alamogordo High School do not agree with the knee jerk reaction of pulling Neverwhere from the Dept. library. It has been successful as a supplemental novel and since our goal is to get students engaged and encourage their thinking, this novel is a keeper — the students love it.”
The teachers also specifically took issue with the way this case has been handled, saying that the parent never spoke directly with the teachers, and also clarifying that no one was forcing the student to read the book. The teacher offered an alternate reading assignment as soon as she learned about the objection—presumably from the administrators, as seemingly the parent never spoke with her. She continues:
“I am sorry our school administrators did not stand up and support the material the way we all would have expected them to do […] We simply cannot stand for banning a book for hundreds of students this year and in the years to come because a single parent objected over one brief passage on one page. [...] Our students have enjoyed Gaiman’s novel for almost ten years, and it saddens us to think that our future students will not have the same opportunity.”
“Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like—the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ’improving’ literature—you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”
He also provided an account of inadvertently nudging his daughter’s reading habits toward tamer material:
Gaiman revealed that he too had been guilty, once telling his 11-year-old daughter that if she loved [R.L.] Stine’s horror books, she would absolutely adore Stephen King’s Carrie: “Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.”
You can read a full transcript of the lecture here.
Obviously, parents should have a role in what their children are exposed to, and I certainly don’t want to flippantly mock someone’s values or reading tastes. However, the idea that one person’s opinion about her own child’s needs is then allowed to impact every other child in a school district (as well as presumably the careers of the teachers involved) frankly horrifies me. Neverwhere is about many things, including kindness, self-sacrifice, social responsibility, and homelessness. The entire plot hinges on one young man’s decision to help someone, despite the fact that it would be easier for him to ignore her pain. And while it does occasionally use graphic violence to make its points, I think it’s a huge stretch to describe it as “inappropriate,” as the parent did in this case. It is not trying to disabuse young people to the horrors of the world, its trying to argue that it’s worth it to stand up and confront them.
Leah Schnelbach is grateful she was encouraged to make her own choices when she was young, because it led to a debauched life full of words and thoughts. You can read a few of them on Twitter.