The other day I dropped by Miz Peg's Writing Camp, where a couple of dozen bright, energetic humans, ages 11 to 13, were learning to string words together.
"I'm teaching them 'process' writing, and they love it," explained Peggy Hylton, an English and literature teacher who has run the one-week writing camp in her Chevy Chase, Md., home for three summers.
"We take a nontraditional approach. It's not about grammar and 'introductory paragraphs,' it's all about writing what they know and what's close to them--from the heart."
Every once in a while, she'll proclaim, "OK, we're going to have a 10-minute random-write!" The kids flop on the floor with notebooks, or into chairs, concentrating on getting their thoughts and feelings into words.
You can hear a pin drop.
On this day, I asked the group to do a random-write on the current book-banning phenomenon, which seems to be aimed primarily at people their age.
Much has been said about the views of adults, particularly of an outfit in Fairfax, Va., called Parents Against Bad Books in Schools, so I thought it would be instructive to know what youngsters think.
"I don't want to be shut out from the truth," wrote Rory Edwards, 12. "If they ban books, they might as well lock us away from the world."
Nicholas Sera-Leyva, 13, wrote of the book-banners: "I mean, who do they think they are? We have rights, too.
"People are taking drugs every second ... killing each other every minute ... cursing every nanosecond and ... having sex every millisecond! If parents and adults are worried about this so much, why don't they just lock all their doors and windows and slap a big 'BANNED' sticker on the world?" Nicholas wrote.
"Something that could help kids decide what they want to read is a warning or notice on the book explaining its explicit content," suggested Daniel McNamara, 12.
Rather than being banned, problematic texts might best be addressed in classrooms "to make sure kids know early, in school, what drug abuse, curse words or sex are."
As early as age 8, some of the young writers thought, many kids are able to make serious moral distinctions about what they can or can't handle as reading matter.
Lillian Bond, 13, wrote of a shocking event in her life:
"In fifth grade I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' "--Harper Lee's novel about a 6-year-old girl in the racist South ranks No. 40 on the American Library Assn.'s list of Most Frequently Challenged Books--"and made the mistake of reading in class."
"My teacher confiscated the book and gave it to my mother, along with a speech about how my mom should be more careful about the things I read. The book was back in my hands the moment we walked out of the classroom. My mom has never tried to restrict my reading."
"By limiting our understanding, by holding us back, you are really pushing us closer to chaos. You are making us naive. You would never refuse to let us read parables from the Bible--well, these books are parables, too. They show the light and the dark."
The youngsters seemed sensitive to racial nuances.
"Adults don't want us to read books like 'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' "--Mildred Taylor's vivid portrayal of racism--"because they think it's biased against whites," wrote Lindsay Gund, 13. "But it's the way it happened, and it's the truth."
"During the years of slavery, do people think that white people were so kind and loving to African Americans? No! If we can read about the hardships of slavery, we should be able to read about the postwar hardships, too," Lindsay argued. "Parents underestimate our maturity. Just because we read about something doesn't mean we'll do it."
Erin Bowler, 13, offered this sober meditation:
"In fourth grade I was sitting in our public library, and I picked up a book called 'Hermanas/Sisters' (by Gary Paulsen). It was about two girls leading totally different lives. They were both 16, only one was a cheerleader and the other was a prostitute.
"I remember thinking that at the end of the book, they should've put a very big note to readers that said, 'What this girl did was wrong,"' Erin wrote. "Should I have been able to read the book? At age 9 or 10, my answer is, 'Definitely not.'
"But reading the book now, I don't think would be inappropriate. I have matured in a lot of ways .... Reading 'bad' books won't encourage me to be promiscuous, a crack addict," Erin said. "I'm still a little Catholic school girl."
The youngsters know there are no easy answers. Like writing, it's a "process" as we help one another in the lifelong struggle to do the right thing.
I'm reminded of a 1984 essay by Robert Bachelder, "Real People Struggle With Evil," about Piers Paul Read. The great English Catholic novelist wrote morally uplifting books ("A Married Man," "The Upstart," "Monk Dawson") that are full of sex, mayhem and depravity.
Bachelder wrote that Read's theology, "instead of flattening his characters, illumines them by revealing their struggles to be what they are, in [T.S.] Eliot's words, 'moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending upon spiritual sanctions."'
"Dawson discovers that one 'does not attain a state of grace through a continuous succession of right actions but by the understanding of the contradictions within oneself, a containment of them, and hence the preservation of one's moral integrity.
"'Sin was inevitable, but there was an antidote in repentance."'
The kids get it.