Editor’s note: Jesse Andrews is author of the novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is one of five books pulled from the library shelves of high schools within the purview of Tallahassee, Florida-based Leon County Schools superintendent Rock Hanna, after the Leon County chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty petitioned the schools to remove the book because of the frank depiction of sex and gender identity issues. The others include Push, the Sapphire-penned book that inspired the film Precious; Doomed by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk; Lucky by Alice Sebold; and Dead End by Jason Meyer. Still being scrutinized is an autobiography of tennis great Billie Jean King, because it discusses her sexuality. This has been an ongoing theme precipitated by policies passed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative Republicans. DeSantis is running for president and probably figured to ride his brawl with Disney into the White House, until Bob Iger began pushing back in ways that have cost revenue and investments it planned for the state of Florida, where Disney is its largest taxpayer and employer. What’s it like to see your book banished for, as Moms for Liberty argued in its email to the school board, violate state law and subject school district personnel to potential felony prosecution and litigation? Here, Andrews — also a screenwriter whose credits include co-writing with Mike Jones Pixar’s Luca — explains it all.
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The book banners, once again, have banned my book. Every time this happens, I’m not sure whether to find it funny or sad.
The book in question is my first novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, published in 2012. It’s a weird little anti-romance about a teenage boy whose mom forces him to befriend a girl with cancer, and when it first came out, I had a lot of thoughts and hopes about how it would do. I hoped it would make kids laugh and feel understood; I thought adults might find it refreshingly frank about how mundane and disappointing teenage life usually is. I didn’t think it would be a bestseller, but I believed there was a home for it somewhere in the culture.
What I never once thought was, “Someday, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will be one of the 10 most banned books in America.” That would have seemed insane.
And yet, here we inexplicably are. Last week, Moms For Liberty — a conservative group that describes itself as “fighting for the survival of America” — got my book and four others banned from the school library system of Leon County, Florida. This barely registers as news to me at this point. For the last two years, a national movement of right-wing activists has been busily bleaching the bookshelves of hundreds of books they’ve targeted as unfit for teenagers to read. My novel has been banned dozens of times and challenged dozens more; I don’t see this ending anytime soon.
It’s important to point out that most of the targeted books are about what it is to be not white or straight or cisgender in America, and I want to be really clear that I worry a lot more about the smearing and censoring of those viewpoints than I do my own. Those books provide kids (and grownups) with windows onto parts of the landscape of human experience that exist whether conservatives want them to or not. Shutting those windows, to me, is tragic.
But my book is sort of a different case. It seems to have been banned mainly because there’s a lot of swearing and a two-page passage where the main character and his only friend do a long jokey riff about eating pussy. (They’re both straight cisgender boys, one white, one Black.) The riff makes it pretty clear they’ve never eaten pussy, nor are they going to in the foreseeable future. I can’t stress this enough: these boys have never had sex. They’re just trying to make each other laugh by being gross and over-the-top. If you have ever known or been a teenager, you are probably familiar with this phenomenon.
So first of all, I feel like something of an imposter among these other authors, most of whom have written something that took genuine courage to write. My book took about the same amount of courage that it would take to write an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
But there’s something troubling about what’s happening with my book, too. Let me try to explain. For the last couple of years I’ve seen videos of angry grownups at school board meetings calling it “pornography,” and then reading the pussy-eating passage aloud in aggrieved and quavering voices while the school board begs them to stop. Even I have to admit, in that context, my book sounds pretty bad.
But so might a lot of books. Just to pick one completely at random, in the very first book of the Bible, there is a pretty explicit account of father-daughter incest. I’m not advising anyone to do this, but you could hypothetically read Genesis 19:30-36 aloud at a school board meeting, in a tone of barely controlled righteous anger, and call it pornography — and sound halfway credible! That doesn’t mean the Bible actually is pornography, of course. That would just show how it can be dishonest and misleading to read something out of context. This is an important part of what schools call “reading comprehension.”
If you read my book from front to back, I promise you, you will not find it pornographic. Just to define our terms: the function of pornography is to stimulate erotic arousal. No one, and I find it wild that I have to spell this out, has ever been erotically aroused by reading Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I encourage Moms For Liberty to think really hard about what they’re saying, the next time they claim otherwise.
In earnest, I find it heartbreaking that the book-banning crowd is using poor reading comprehension as a tool to deny kids access to the very books that might make them better readers. And this might be where you say: “Jesse, how would your weird book, with its gross-out riffs and many swear words, help a kid read better?” I think this is a totally fair question to ask. My answer is: that profane language reflects the way real-life teenagers actually talk, and that kind of realism makes kids enjoy reading. Not all kids! Maybe not most kids. But some. Who might not otherwise realize that reading can be fun. And that to me is really important.
Ask any young-adult author: the best part of our writing lives is when a librarian or teacher tells us, “I have a kid who thought he didn’t like books, but then he read your book, and it changed his mind.” We hear this all the time. The explosion of young-adult fiction in the last 20 years has given young readers a dazzling array of styles and worlds and characters to try. For every kid who thinks they don’t like books, a book is out there waiting to unlock them — as long as they have access to it.
So let’s talk about the “survival of America.” Our country is in a literacy crisis. The average American grownup reads at a seventh-grade level, meaning, they cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level. To me, this is catastrophic. It is intimately connected with why our public discourse has become so degraded, with why our society seems to have such difficulty grasping concepts beyond the simplest and crudest ones that harmonize with what we already want to think. As a nation, we’re bad thinkers, and it’s because we’re bad readers. The notion that books harm kids is utterly perverse. The harm is done by not teaching them to read.
But this is where I’d like to leave you with some hope. The colossal number of targeted books, disturbing as it is, reflects a deep and optimistic truth. It’s a function of the vastness of the number of young people in the last decade or two who have learned to love reading.
Gen Z reads. Gen Alpha, or whatever we’re calling them, also reads. This is why the young-adult genre has exploded. Young people are smart and they’re voracious and I think they’re about to bring our national literacy, and national quality of conversation and thought, to a much higher place than where it is today.
And if you worry that these book bans might slow them down, don’t. Parents should know this already. There is no force on earth greater than a teenager’s will to do something you’ve told them not to.
So good luck, Moms For Liberty. You’re fighting the sea.
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