I’m reminded whenever Banned Book Week rolls around that I am the proud author of a much-banned book.
Probably more of my books have been banned than I will ever know, but the banning of On My Honor is the one I know most about. In fact, for some time, it appeared every year on the American Library Association’s list of most banned books.
Why has this small novel, which was given the stamp of approval of a Newbery Honor Award, which has been constantly used in classrooms for more than thirty years, been so often banned?
I take my answer from one very public banning that occurred in San Antonio, Texas, one I know about because it was played out on the local television news.
The banners objected to these elements:
Profanity. (There is a “hell” and a “damn” in the book.)
A teenage couple sit “too close” to one another in a car.
And besides all that, the story is a downer.
The mildness of the material that set off the banning made it more than obvious, at least to me, that the real objection was not being spoken. I can name it, though.
The real objection must be to the discussion between my main character, Joel, and his father at the very end of the story after Joel’s friend, Tony, has died.
“Do you believe in heaven?” Joel asks. “Do you believe Tony’s gone there?”
And the objection must come from the fact that Joel’s father doesn’t produce the “right” answer. Not right for my banners, not right for Joel, either.
His father says, “If there is a heaven, I’m sure Tony’s gone there. I can’t imagine a heaven that could be closed to charming, reckless boys.” He also says, “I believe there is something about life that goes on. It seems too good to end in a river.”
The point of that moment isn’t whether or not Joel’s father believes in heaven. It is that, in Joel’s eyes, his father has failed him again. Joel wants what my banners want, a simple, concrete answer. Yes, there is a heaven. Certainly Tony is there now. (If he believes in Jesus, of course, the banners would have wanted to add.)
On My Honor, however, isn’t about the religious implications of Joel’s question. It’s about Joel’s relationship with his father. It’s about Joel’s wanting his father to be different than he is, less ready to see every side of every question whether it’s a request to bike out to the state park—something Joel asked for, wanting to be refused—or the certainty of his friend’s arrival in heaven.
And because Joel doesn’t get what he wants, he is furious.
But then he asks another question, one that gets down to bedrock between him and his dad. “‘Will you stay?’ he asked, reaching a hand out tentatively to touch his father’s knee. ‘Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?’”
And his father, his very reliable father, says, “Of course.”
There my story ends. There are no easy answers. There isn’t even the promised comfort of heaven. But Joel’s father is solid. He is there.
And that matters.
What did I learn from On My Honor’s being banned again and again?
If possible, I avoid the easy touchstones that set off book banning, the “damn” and the “hell.” Not because such words are really offensive and certainly not because it’s important that my books not be banned. After all, banned books are in such great company! But if those who believe that books should be banned don’t have such convenient things to point to, they will be forced to talk about the truth of their objections, the ideas I’m writing about that they consider dangerous, not an offensive word or a dark mood.
But I’ve learned something else along the way. Times change. Some years later in San Antonio, On My Honor was voted the single book for the entire city to read!
I laughed out loud when I heard.
And when I was through with my delight, I returned to writing something else that someone is going to object to. Not because I enjoy stirring dissent—though I’ll admit that kind of stirring can be rather fun sometimes—but because I have no choice but to write my heart.
And my heart has a way of refusing to say what those who believe in banning books want to hear.