Last month, my semi-autobiographical novel "Always Running" was abruptly pulled from three English classes at Beyer High School in Modesto. In one class, students were midway through the book when they were told they had to stop reading. Not a single student -- or any of their parents -- had complained. The school district was reacting to the concerns of a parent who home-schools her children.
I suppose I should be flattered. Last spring, this same person targeted five other books she thought should be removed from the Modesto city schools' reading programs: "The House of the Spirits," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "The Color Purple," "Cold Mountain" and "The Handmaid's Tale." That's not bad company.
But I find the action deeply disturbing. You see, in my experience, books can save lives.
I'm not exaggerating here. I've spoken to thousands of students in dozens of schools over the last quarter-century. I've learned that when young people, even in the most destitute communities, find books they can relate to, with characters like themselves who ultimately triumph over adversity, books can be a lifeline.
I wrote my book hoping -- in vain as things turned out -- it would be such a lifeline to my son, who had joined a gang in Chicago, where we lived. I thought that by writing of my experience in a Los Angeles gang, I could show him the ultimate futility of this life, especially for those who joined to find family, meaning or to deepen peer connections. Kids join gangs for different reasons. But at a certain point they have to ask themselves: Do I turn my life over to others who in the end may not really care about who I am, or do I finally own my life?
Because of its subject, "Always Running" is gritty.
The book has sex and drugs and violence. It tells the truth about a kind of life I hope none of its readers will embrace. But I know that many young people have already made choices that put them in jeopardy. It's those people I most hope the book will reach with the point that there is life after gangs.
I know I have touched some of the kids I hoped to connect with.
On numerous high school campuses, students have thanked me from their hearts for my book's story and message. One recent e-mail from a reader said the book had "brought out true emotion I never had before." At a Michigan high school where tensions had developed between African Americans and Latinos, my book was introduced in an English class. Teachers there told me that word spread and soon students not in the class were reading it on their own. As a result, the teachers said, conflicts decreased dramatically. When I visited, a student had painted murals in the school library with scenes from the book.
Yet the American Library Assn. says "Always Running" is one of the 100 most censored books in the United States. Schools and libraries have tried with varying degrees of success to ban it in California, Illinois, Michigan and Texas. What I can't grasp is banning a book that kids actually want to read in a time when teachers complain they can't get their students to crack a book.
I've been told by teachers and librarians that "Always Running" is a book that's frequently stolen. A teacher at Manual Arts High School near USC related that one year 200 copies of the book were bought, but the school had only 18 when the year ended. To me, banning my book to protect innocent youth is as absurd as it would be to ban it for promoting theft. I suspect the books are being stolen because students don't want to let them go, and that's not a bad thing.
You never know which book will connect with which kid. When I was 10, a teacher read E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" aloud to the class. It was the first time I recall being transported by what a teacher read to us. I was totally absorbed by a book that, on the surface, had little to do with my life. A year later, I joined a gang, and from then until I was 19 I struggled with violence, drugs and jails.
It was books that saved me. Not "Charlotte's Web" per se, of course, but the sense I'd gotten from stories like that early in life that books were powerful forces that could pull on my imagination, reflect my experiences and emotions and point the way out of dark and grim realities.
I learned last week that the Modesto superintendent of schools had rescinded the ban on my book, leaving decisions about assigning it up to teachers. That's gratifying. Still, I understand there are students who won't want to read "Always Running," and they shouldn't have to. People should never be required to read books that offend them. That's freedom to read.
But when there is a great need and a great demand, when a book has proved to be an effective tool in promoting literacy and dealing with life, then it should be accessible to those who want it.
That too is freedom to read.