Tag Archives: On My Honor

Celebrating Banned Book Week

On My Honor

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.

#BannedBooksWeek @BannedBooksWeek @simonteen @simonkids @SSEdLib

Feeling as Meaning

I have never been fond of the exercise that asks students to identify a story’s theme.  Most writers, I suspect, share my view.  In fact, I once heard a Newbery medalist tell about her grandson receiving such an assignment about her book. Having access to the source, he called to ask.

She thought for a moment, then said, “Well, I guess the theme is . . . ” and she spelled it out for him.

He called her again a few days later to report.  His teacher had given his answer a D.

I’ve seen some educator-produced materials designed to support On My Honor that explained the “theme” of my novel in ways I barely recognized.  And though most of my grandchildren read On My Honor as a class assignment, I’ve been glad none of them ever called to ask me to explain its theme.  I probably would have gotten a D on the assignment, too.

It’s not that stories don’t have meaning.  They do.  Always.  A story could be saying, “Isn’t life a lark?”  It might be, “Life is a dirty deal.”   Perhaps it’s “Crime doesn’t pay.”  Or maybe “Seems like we’re all in this mess together.”  A story reveals its writer in the most intimate way by holding up her world view.  Sometimes a story can reveal more of her world than the writer herself understands.

Stories—at least well-written, deeply conceived stories—are not intended to stamp a lesson in the middle of a reader’s forehead, no matter how young and stampable that reader might be.  What stories are meant to do, more than anything else, is to make us feel.

The meaning of a story, any story, emerges through the feelings the story engenders, and feelings are difficult to explicate on an exam.

On My Honor

So what do I want my readers to feel when they read On My Honor?  First, I want them to feel Tony’s sudden, unexpected death, the shock of it, the finality of it.

Then I want them to feel Joel’s misplaced guilt, the way he takes responsibility for Tony’s brash actions, the way he blames himself for daring Tony to swim to the sandbar.  (It’s curious that my readers, even my readers’ teachers, rarely seem to notice that the guilt is misplaced.  Joel made the dare because he was trying to prevent Tony from going on his own to climb the bluffs, something he assumed would have been even more dangerous than messing around in the river.)

I want them to feel the way Joel’s guilt becomes blame, becomes fury against his father.  I want them to feel the hopelessness of that blame, of that fury, whether directed inward or onto another.

And finally, I want them to feel the solidness of Joel’s father.  Like so many of us parents, Joel’s father has been trying so hard throughout the story to do the right thing that he has been  wavering and uncertain.  But when Joel needs him most, that man’s love is a rock.

“Will you stay?” [Joel] asked, reaching a hand out tentatively to touch his father’s knee.  “Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?”

“Of course,” his father said.

I want my readers to understand in their bones that love doesn’t have to be perfect to be wholly, solidly, reliably there.  And that it is love’s thereness that redeems.

When they feel that, it doesn’t matter whether they can wrap that feeling in words and call it theme or not.  They understand.

No Happy Endings


photo credit: RoganJosh / Morguefile.com

It’s a complaint heard often: why can’t stories for kids ever have happy endings these days? And heads nod solemnly, agreeing it’s a shame, the darkness our kids are subjected to.

In a world where dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games garner the largest readership and turn into the most popular films, the question has a certain validity, despite its overstatement.  (An equally valid question would be, what’s happening in our world that prompts young readers to turn toward such darkness?) The truth is, though, that there are lots of happily-ever-after stories offered to our young readers. Or at least there are lots of books with resolved, hopeful endings. And the younger the reader is, the more likely the story’s ending is to be traditionally “happy.”

As a society we agree that our youngest members should be protected from what we adults know to be, at least potentially, a harsh, a dangerous, a disillusioning world. The disagreement comes over deciding the right time to begin to lift that protectively happy scrim. At eight? At twelve? At sixteen?

I’m not a specialist in child development. In fact the truth is that I write out of my gut, not out of that kind of specialized psychological knowledge. My gut tells me, though, that the ten- or eleven-year-old who reads On My Honor is old enough to deal with the imagined death of an imagined friend. Even if he finds it shocking because he has never encountered death in a story before.

My gut tells me that I don’t have to bring the dead boy back to life at the end of the story to make everything all right. It also tells me that the feelings my young readers carry away from the story will do them no harm. Those feelings will, in fact, enlarge young psyches, making room for more compassion, a deeper understanding.

I’m not talking about bibliotherapy, either. Reading the right book may help a child through a traumatic experience, but that’s not what stories are for. Feeling our way through fictional events helps every one of us explore the fundamental questions of being human, and that exploration happens best in the quiet of our lives, not in the midst of our own trauma.

We adults don’t demand that stories written for us have “happy” endings. Why? Because we know that sometimes happy endings are a lie. And we know that truth—at least in fiction—is more important than good feelings, even if truth brings tears.

I’m not talking about sad stories as bibliotherapy, either, though a book can be an effective aid sometimes. I’m talking about sad stories as one—not the only but one—representation of human experience. An experience we must learn to parse at any age, because sadness is part of all our lives. The advantage of a sad story over the sadness we live is that we can stand back from a story, feel it without being crushed, and thus have a chance to sort it for meaning.

My personal guide in creating stories never changes whether the story I am writing is for three-year-olds, adolescents or adults. I ask that whatever my characters—and consequently my readers—may feel along the way, pain or joy, my story always follows a thread, however gossamer, of hope.

That isn’t a literary standard. The sun rarely rises at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Rather it is a moral one. My own very personal morality. Life can be painful, yes, but it is precious. Life without hope is without value.

Each day I rise to embrace life, to rejoice in it, to hold it dear, whatever difficulties may come. I vow never to offer my readers less.

And hope is, I believe, much larger and more important than a happy ending.

Tied Up with a Bow

boy“A writer only begins a book.
A reader finishes it.”
−Samuel Johnson

I hear the question regarding On My Honor more than with any of my other books: “But what happens next?”

I have, in fact, been asked that so many times about On My Honor that I’ve begun recommending an assignment: You tell me what happens next. Write Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters.)

For those who might not know the story, a quick plot summary . . . Joel asks his father for permission to go on an outing with his friend Tony, an outing Joel doesn’t want to be part of but doesn’t have the courage to refuse. Joel’s father, not understanding what is at stake, disappoints Joel by giving permission, and the two boys go. They end up swimming in a forbidden river where Tony, the more daring of the two, drowns. Joel, frightened and guilty and furious with his father for not protecting him from this terrible situation, returns home and, at first, doesn’t tell anyone what has happened. When he finally tells the truth, he also accuses his father, expecting some terrible punishment that will bring the world down around him and somehow make things “right.” What he gets is his father’s unwavering presence, a reconciliation that gives the story its only possible resolution.

Many teachers have passed my assignment for a Chapter 13 on to their classes, and sometimes they send their students’ new endings to me. I read them with a sense of discovery. So this is what happens! Because I don’t have a clue myself. I have never spent five minutes pursuing the question, no matter how often others pose it. The story, for me, ends with Joel in his father’s arms, with Joel and his father finding a way to be together in the face of the tragedy neither of them can repair. That is the resolution my heart longs for and what happens beyond that seems incidental. What happens beyond that moment is life, not story.

I knew, of course, that much in the story remained “unfinished,” but that was exactly the way I wanted it to be. If I had answered all the questions I have heard from young readers over the years, On My Honor would have become a different story. And in a curious way it would have belonged less to my readers and more to me. By not answering those questions, I leave it to them to carry Joel away with them. If all had been resolved, tied up neatly with a bow, they would have found it much easier to put Joel down and forget him.

Readers come away from On My Honor wanting, sometimes quite desperately, to know what will happen next. They want to attend Tony’s funeral. They want to return to school with Joel in the fall to see how the boys’ friends will receive him. They want to follow him into his life to see how he will manage without Tony. All of that could form the basis for another story, of course. It just doesn’t happen to be a story that calls to me.

One piece of On My Honor, however, remains unresolved in a way that I didn’t intend. If I could write the novel again, I would have Tony’s body discovered. In the first draft, I did have a chapter in which the body was brought back, but Joel’s reaction to seeing his friend was so strong that I dropped the chapter. I thought it might steal power from the final scene between father and son. The problem with having done that is that some young readers finish the book still expecting Tony to be discovered, alive and well. They probably have never read a story before in which a main character dies, especially someone their own age, and so they are distracted by hope and miss the story’s true resolution.

If I had realized that might happen, I would have answered that question more firmly. I could easily have had the body discovered off stage so that the death would have been certain without creating a distractingly too-strong moment.

But the rest? I am convinced it is the unanswered questions that give On My Honor its resonance.

I believe it is the unanswered questions that give most stories their resonance.

And that’s why I rarely tie up my stories with a bow.

The Deepest Gift

praiseMy working life is represented by 96 books sitting on my shelf, each one bearing my name. An accomplishment I do not hold lightly. These books have been written and published over the course of 40 years, and that bears mentioning, too. I have worked long and steadily.

I have made a living for 25 years doing work that I love. Note the discrepancy between publishing for 40 and making a living by that publishing for 25. It took me 15 years before I ever once, combining income from writing, teaching, lecturing, and speaking in schools, earned enough money to survive on my own. And keeping that living going after it finally reached that level has required a lot of cobbling, a lot of taking on varied writing projects (thus the 96 books), a lot of teaching, a lot of climbing onto airplanes, a lot of repeating myself in front of a sea of wiggly kids. But I did it. And I’m so grateful I could that there is hardly room left over for pride in the accomplishment of it.

Looking back I see intense hard work. Good work. Always good. And every bit as clearly I see serendipity. Winning a Newbery Honor Award in 1987 for On My Honor was a major example of serendipity. Winning any award requires serendipity. While it can be presumed that a book that garners an important award is pretty good, there will always be a dozen more books—perhaps 100—of equal value that year, books that didn’t happen to catch the award-givers’ eyes. So serendipity lay in the calling out of my book from the pack and it certainly lay in the timing of the call. The award announcement came just as I cast aside the safety net of a 28-year marriage.

With the award, I woke to find myself the flavor of the month. Doors were opened where I hadn’t even known there were doors. And I walked through them . . . walked and walked.

I never forgot serendipity, though, or assumed any special deserving. A fellow author traveling the speaking circuit once said to me, “If you begin to think these invitations/awards are important, just ask your hosts who they invited/awarded last year and watch them struggle to remember!”

All this is real and true, and all of it is history. The advantage of being, by anyone’s measure, an old woman is that so much falls away. So much of the need for attention. So much of the desire for my work to be seen as better than. . . . So much of the feeling that 96 books—or one book—matters very much.

Early in my career I came to understand something important: the number of books published, the number of awards garnered matters very little. What matters is the day-by-day process of sitting down to write, of honing my skill, of mining my truth.

If I didn’t always recognize that reality in those first moments of being on display, it came home emphatically in the years that followed. No correlation exists between the amount of time, the amount of love, I invest in a book and its success out there in the world. Books I have created in a couple of hours on a playful afternoon support me, year after year. Books I have labored over with passion and deep feeling, books that represent my highest effort and best work, can turn into smoke.

I have come to know that rewarding myself in the moment of doing by simply paying attention, enjoying, letting the words flow through me is the key to a good writing life, to a good life.

How grateful I am to be an old woman who rises every day to work, to good work.

That, I can promise you, my friends, matters.