Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Go Ask Alice (Anonymous)

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about Go Ask Alice by "Anonymous."

September 26−October 3, 2009 is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. I'm not a big fan of public book banning, so I decided to choose a banned book and review it this week.

I read Go Ask Alice only once, way back when I was in Junior High. Since then, I don't think I've ever really talked about it with anybody but I still think about this novel frequently.

Amazon Product Description:

It started when she was served a soft drink laced with LSD in a dangerous party game. Within months, she was hooked, trapped in a downward spiral that took her from her comfortable home and loving family to the mean streets of an unforgiving city. It was a journey that would rob her of her innocence, her youth -- and ultimately her life.

Read her diary.

Enter her world.

You will never forget her.

For thirty-five years, the acclaimed, bestselling first-person account of a teenage girl's harrowing decent into the nightmarish world of drugs has left an indelible mark on generations of teen readers. As powerful -- and as timely -- today as ever, Go Ask Alice remains the definitive book on the horrors of addiction.

Look, I know it turns out the book was written by an adult anti-drug activist rather than an actual teenage girl (but who really thought this was a memoir?!) and perhaps some of the message is a bit heavy handed. But I didn't notice that when I read the book as a kid.

I have never tried drugs. Most people I know have done a little (or a lot) of experimenting. And many, though not all, of them enjoyed themselves and survived unscathed. But I haven't ever experimented, and I credit much of that to my reading this book at just the right time in my life. What if what if what if . . . everything goes wrong?

There's so little we can control in this life, I feel like I need to measure every significant risk. What can I gain? What can I lose? Maybe I'd have a really great time stoned out of my mind. But my mind isn't such a terrible place to be. And maybe I'd end up like Alice.

How ironic that parents refuse to let their teens read this book because it's so graphic. That's the point! It wouldn't be very scary or convincing if it depicted drugs as a relatively harmless diversion, or, worse, didn't mention drugs at all.

There are monsters under the bed, and while we need to protect our children's innocence when they're very young, we also need to prepare our children for the world in which they live.


With materials accused of being pornography censors have to decide if the content is intended primarily to titillate or if it serves a larger artistic aesthetic. So too it is with these books, each of which depicts something unpleasant. Should we only publish books about pleasant topics where nothing ugly happens? Fie. What greater sin than white-washing the past? We can't and shouldn't try to revise history. Nor should we attempt to make all the world's tumors into lumps of peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough.

The ugliness in these novels is informative, educational, and artistic. It is not intended to shock and titillate as much as to illustrate and illuminate. Revealing warts-and-all is how these books teach.

A few recently banned books that struck me:

Anonymous. GO ASK ALICE. Avon; Prentice-Hall. Challenged as a reading assignment at Hanahan Middle School in Berkeley County, S.C. (2008) because of blatant, explicit language using street terms for sex, talk of worms eating body parts, and blasphemy. The anonymously written 1971 book is about a fifteen-year-old girl who gets caught up in a life of drugs and sex before dying from an overdose. Its explicit references to drugs and sex have been controversial since it was first published. Source: May 2008, pp. 98-99.

Hosseini, Khaled. THE KITE RUNNER. Bloomsbury. Challenged as appropriate study in tenth-grade honors English class at Freedom High School in Morganton, N.C. (2008) because the novel depicts a sodomy rape in graphic detail and uses vulgar language. Source: May 2008, pp. 97-98.

Lee, Harper. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Lippincott/Harper; Popular Library. Retained in the English curriculum by the Cherry Hill, N.J. Board of Education (2007). A resident had objected to the novel's depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression. The resident feared the book would upset black children reading it. Source: Mar. 2008, p. 80; May 2008, pp. 117-18.

Twain, Mark [Samuel L. Clemens]. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Bantam; Bobbs-Merrill; Grosset; Harper; Holt; Houghton; Longman; Macmillan; NAL; Norton; Penguin; Pocket Bks. Challenged, but retained in the Lakeville, Minn. High School (2007) and St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis, Minn. (2007) as required reading for sophomores. The district will conduct staff training about race issues and revise the way it weighs requests for curriculum changes. The district will also let its staff offer alternative assignments on racially sensitive issues in ways which “students do not feel ostracized because they have opted out of the assignment." Challenged at Richland High School in North Richland Hills, Tex. (2007) because of racial epithets. Challenged at the Manchester, Conn. High School (2007) "because the 'N' word is used in the book 212 times." Source: May 2007, p. 99; July 2007.

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Barrie said...

I read this book as a teen. But didn't tell my parents!

RobMonroe said...

Indeed, the past is not to be whitewashed. You have to learn about things to learn why they are wrong.

I really liked (really, that's not the word) the new anti-underage-drinking commercial I saw the other day, but can not find it on youtube or the Ad Council site. Basically the girl is completely passed out in a chair and her friends treat her like a puppet, complete with strings to move her. Very powerful.

(and I just found this one, which is a little weird...

Krupskaya said...

I read GAA in FIFTH GRADE! It was in our school library. I remember reading it because the sex was titillating, but the drug message stuck with me. And I feel the same way -- that book was one of many reasons I didn't get into drugs and tried to be smart about the alcohol I drank. Nice post.

Sarahlynn said...

Barrie, I don't remember if my parents knew I was reading this book, but I'm sure they would have approved . . . even as former hippies. ;-)

Rob, I saw that commercial! It grabbed me enough that I backed up the Tivo to watch it.

Krupskaya, that's young! And probably just the right age. My friends and I were ALL ABOUT the graphic sex scenes then and that seems just fine to me until I think about, say, well, JOHN or some other modern upper elementary schooler.

Sarah Laurence said...

I remember reading Go Ask Alice as a teen and being deeply moved. How could it be banned? It teaches kids the danger of drugs. That’s disappointing to hear that it was a fake memoir. I never did drugs either.

How could ANYONE ban To Kill a Mockingbird? My kids will be reading it for school as I did. I loved the Kite Runner. Huckleberry Fin didn’t do much for me as a kid – the racism bothered me - but it shouldn’t be banned.

Excellent post.

Bee said...

I read this book as an adult reading teacher and I hated it . . . but my teenage daughter has read it repeatedly. It seems so dated, but obviously it has emotional content that still rings true.

grace said...

my parents gave it to me for christmas when i was a pre-teen. it was very impactful.

grace said...

my parents gave it to me for christmas when i was a pre-teen. it was very impactful.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting idea to review a book you read when you were a teen. Barrie's comment reminded me of another popular book at the time that read while babysitting.

As for drugs, I didn't read this book, but I saw this horrific film in school about the horrors of LSD and that's all I needed not to want to do drugs. I can barely handle taking aspirin. LOL!

So I think the shock value helps kids.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I've never even heard of this book--I think I would have been horrified to read it as a teen (and probably now too).

But I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn!

cinnamon girl said...

Have you read 'the day they came to arrest the book?' It's a kids book, but deals specifically with the banning of Huck Finn in a school. Probably my favourite book about book banning.

I remember reading Go Ask Alice as a teenager. I haven't read it since, because I thought it was really sad.

But until I read the comments here, I would have said it was useless for showing the dangers of drugs. Now I'm not sure....

I remember thinking that the depictions of drug use in it were frankly unrealistic. I think there is a danger in exaggerating drug use or the dangers of drug use as a shock tactic, in that once they realise you were exaggerating, you lose credibility with young people and they don't listen to the good advice you may have.

I'm not sure if any of you were considering trying drugs and changed your mind on the basis of this book. But it would take only minimal knowledge (that which is available in any schoolyard) to realise this book isn't realistic. It didn't deter anyone I knew who was already interested in trying them.

I know I still have a copy - I might go read it again to see if my analysis still holds true for me all these years later.

Keri Mikulski said...

Loved, loved this book! ;)

Great review! :)

Anonymous said...

Never read it; is it a precursor to Ellen Hopkins? Her stuff is pretty powerful, from what I understand, and much beloved by girls of a certain age.

Also: Tender Morsels.

Jessica said...

I read this book as a teen and, as you know, am nearly addicted to the concept of addiction - I gravitate toward stories regarding it.

As you also know, our book club just reviewed Beautiful Boy and Tweak. I have to admit that I have mixed emotions about Tweak being in the youth section of book stores. Would I let (or want) my child to read it? Actually, yes. But I can also totally understand where some parents wouldn't - - not because the addicted kid, Nic, reveals (in great, graphic detail) the ugly world of drugs - to include prostituting himself out to men to get his next fix - but because he so often goes into just as graphic detail about the euphoric experience of shooting up, snorting, smoking meth AND because a significant part of his voice comes across as this tortured artist type who finds pieces of addiction glamorous and/or appealing.

I should add that I don’t necessarily take issue with either of those points - I think we should tell our children that drugs can initially appear to be a rockin' good time (if all they hear are the dangers, when/if they do decide to experiment, their first thought is, "Whoa - this is GREAT!") nor do I take issue with Nic obviously finding some of this to be cool while also reflecting the absolutely horrific circumstances of his reality BUT I am empathetic to a parent who might want to try a different book and/or approach. There could be more than one young adult teetering on the possibility of drug experimentation that reads Nic's story and thinks some of it sounds really, really exciting and feels confident *they* would be exempt from all the terrible consequences.

Bingol - I am going to see Ellen Hopkins later this month, actually.

Anonymous said...

You're going to see her talk? My wife writes YA, and follows Hopkins on Twitter, and she seems sharp and interesting. Not really my thing, but it's barely possible that middle-aged men aren't her target demographic.

I'm a bit interested in how much hard-edged, grittily realistic (or even grittily fantastic, actually) stuff there is for girls, and how little for boys. I hesitate to wade into waters far over my head, but there seems a good deal of YA geared toward girls' fantasy lives: whether that be glamorous and romantic sex and riches a la Gossip Girls or horrific and traumatic sex and victimization a la ... so much else.

For equivalent boys' fantasy lives all I've really seen is that one book so firmly (and deservedly, looks like) deplored by whatshername Fine.

Pretty sure I had a point, early on, but I lost it.

kaye said...

I've read three of the books you listed as being banned. I read Go ask Alice when I was in High School. I though it was good and informative. I've never tried drugs either.

my review is here

Sarahlynn said...

Sarah, I can understand some parents choosing not to expose their children to certain things (sex, violence, "adult situations," whatever). But pretending that racism never happened in our past? That just doesn't sit well with me.

Bee, I honestly can't remember anything about the writing. I must have been reading for something else.

Grace, perhaps I got it from a similar source! But the takeaway was clearly different. Fascinating.

Kathy, I rarely take analgesics, myself. Maybe this book is the root cause of that!

Alyssa, me too!

Cinnamon girl, I haven't read that, but it sounds great. I agree with you about the dangers of exaggerating and lying to scare kids away from undesirable behaviors. (This line of thought takes me back to how SHOCKED I was not to get pregnant immediately upon ceasing use of birth control when my husband and I were ready to start having kids.)

But when I read GO ASK ALICE I understood that what happened to her was a sort of worst case scenario. What I took away from it was - if you do this you might be OK. But you might not, too. And I'm just not a big risk-taker. ;-)

Thanks, Keri!

Bingol, I've not read Ellen Hopkins or tender morsels. My recent YA reading has been sadly limited!

What are teen boys reading, I wonder. Anime? Adult horror? Sports Illustrated? I have done zero research into this.

Jessica, I agree completely!

Also, invitation coming your way. After I sleep a little.

Sarahlynn said...

Kaye, there are so many more! Those are just a few that jumped out at me. I hope to catch up on the rest of the BSBRC reviews this weekend . . .

SafeLibraries said...

That map you linked is loaded with false and misleading information. No books have been banned in the USA for about a half a century. See "National Hogwash Week."

Sarahlynn said...

As you know, "banning" is not the same as "censorship."

In my examples here (copied from the site to which I linked) the difference is clear. "Banning" a book is to remove it from a particular library or curriculum because of complaints about the book's content.
"A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice. The ALA promotes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who which to read them."

"ALA spokeswoman Macey Morales said that books were actually pulled at least 74 times last year."

If censorship is your big issue, there are better targets that this! Libraries are all about the free and accessible distribution of information.

But I suspect you're not especially worried about censorship. Rather, you support the right of a group of individuals in a community to decide for ALL in that community which books are OK for them to read based on a comfortable fit with your particular ideology.

If you're a parent worried about what your young children might be reading - as I am - then you should be involved enough with your child's life to know what he/she is reading and talk to him/her about it.

That's your responsibility as a parent and is far better than enforcing your standards on everyone else.

Krupskaya said...

I'm sorry, but LMAO about not getting immediately pregnant when you went off birth control! I said the exact same thing to Mr. K -- my OBGYN strongly suggested that I begin charting as soon as I went off the pill because I had irregular periods. I said to Mr. K, "Wait, so I can get pregnant only like ONE DAY A MONTH? WTF?" Hee.

As far as what Cinnamon Girl said about not being inclined to take drugs anyway, and GAA not having anything to do with it, I disagree. It's possible I wouldn't have tried drugs anyway, I suppose. But the physical sickness I felt at reading descriptions of people who couldn't control themselves stuck with me all the way through. I am sure, with my background and life experience, that I would not have become a regular drug user. I find it unusual, however, that someone with my background and life experience has never even tried drugs -- and the books I read had a lot to do with that, I think.

Also, Sarahlynn, seriously -- if John came home with GAA, I would have a quiet freakout in my room by myself! And then I would out and talk about it with him. :)

Sarahlynn said...

That fertility window thing was a HUGE shock to us! I was sure that if I even got too close to semen then I would be instantly pregnant. And I'd studied Biology! Propaganda is strong.

Being out of control is a really really big deal for me. GAA did a great job of highlighting that risk for me.

SafeLibraries said...

Sarahlynn, what you said is largely inaccurate. This is much more accurate: "US Libraries Hit Back Over Challenges to Kids Books," by Sara Hussein, Agence France-Presse [AFP], 6 September 2009.

Sarahlynn said...

What's largely inaccurate? The definition from the American Library Association web site? What, specifically, are you refuting?

I appreciate the way the Yahoo! News article clarifies your position.

But I agree with Caldwell Stone "that one parent should not be able to limit other children's reading material. 'When you challenge a book and argue that it shouldn't be on the shelf at all, or that there should be restricted access to the book... then what you're saying is that my values, my morals, should dictate what other people's children are reading.'"

You don't like GOSSIP GIRLS for kids. Frankly, I don't like the idea either - for anyone of any age. But I think that Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain and Life as a Gurl sounds like it might be a great resource for some teens (though probably not as recommended or required reading for middle schoolers). (My biggest concern, without having seen the actual text, is that some of the topics seem appropriate for younger readers (e.g. breast development) while others seem appropriate for older readers (frank discussions of various sex acts).

We have teachers and administrators and school boards and departments of education to decide which books are appropriate for public school curricula.

But for public libraries? In this post 9/11 world airlines don't even check IDs for children under 16 but you'd like librarians to do so?

And who decides what's appropriate for a child to check out from a library? I think that decision rests with the parents.

I sure don't want anyone who would ban THE KITE RUNNER making that decision for my family and my community.

SafeLibraries said...

Sarahlynn, I agree with Caldwell-Stone as well when she says, "one parent should not be able to limit other children's reading material." But a legitimate challenge brought legitimately has to start with one person. The challenge is then handled according to policy. If the challenged book is removed, it would be due to the application of policy by the party responsible for ensuring the application of that policy, not because of "one parent."

Caldwell-Stone goes on to say, "When you challenge a book and argue that it shouldn't be on the shelf at all, or that there should be restricted access to the book... then what you're saying is that my values, my morals, should dictate what other people's children are reading." That is her view, not reality. In reality, there may be a number or reasons, and those reasons may have nothing to do with values or morality. Sometimes those are the reasons, so that makes Caldwell-Stone's statement partially correct. But she and the ALA attempt and often succeed in misleading people that every challenge is brought for reasons of values or morality, therefore every challenge should be denied. Why have a materials reconsideration policy if every challenge will be denied?

You say I don't like Gossip Girls. Actually, the ALA's former YALSA president doesn't like it, and neither does Naomi Wolf, etc. What I feel about the book is irrelevant.

As to Deal With It, the book was removed from hundreds of schools in the liberal New York City school system due to its content. See City's Ed. Boobs.

Yes, decisions should rest with parents. But the parents pay taxes to those libraries and can reasonably expect them to help them, not be subservient to an anything-goes policy of an out-of-state organization like the ALA.

Worse, the ALA makes recommendations upon which parents rely for guidance. The ALA recommendations include inappropriate material for children. So if parents use due diligence and check the book is ALA approved or awarded, the children still get exposed to inappropriate material. Parents are damned if they do, damned if they don't, and the ALA gets away with blaming the parents for not taking action. It's a double standard.

Local libraries should be able to react to local interests instead of blindly serving what the ALA dishes out. Books given top awards for kids 12 and up now contain x-rated material. I personally got the author of one such book to admit he would not give his own award-winning book to his own 12 year old if he had one. The local librarian should be allowed to decide if the x-rated book should not be made available to children no matter how well the ALA praised it.

Would you agree?

Sarahlynn said...

"But the parents pay taxes to those libraries and can reasonably expect them to help them, not be subservient to an anything-goes policy of an out-of-state organization like the ALA."

You grossly misrepresent the role of the ALA and the relationship between individual public libraries (not to mention school and private libraries) and the American Library Association.

I'm thinking of all kinds of good "values and morality" reasons why I don't want a small group of parents or other "concerned individuals" in my community deciding which books are and are not appropriate for me to read.

You suggest that there are legitimate reasons to challenge a book that "have nothing to do with values and morality." What are some examples of such challenges?

There's a reason these discussions focus on issues of values and morality; books are frequently challenged (and banned or restricted) because of concerns about values and morality. "Recognizing that librarians cannot act in loco parentis, ALA acknowledges and supports the exercise by parents of their responsibility to guide their own children's reading and viewing. Libraries should provide published reviews and/or reference works that contain information about the content, subject matter, and recommended audiences for nonprint materials. These resources will assist parents in guiding their children without implicating the library in censorship."

I think this is a reasonable policy. As for who decides which books to buy for each library - the suggestion that the American Library Association decides what each library in the United States should carry (and how and where it will be shelved) is ridiculous. It's hard for me to imagine the librarians I know "blindly following" anyone.

There are state library commissions, library boards, governing bodies, and library branch managers with measures of autonomy and authority. But you know that.

In public libraries, should the entire adult section be off limits to kids? Will there be federal funding for library security guards to police and enforce this policy? Will librarians be required to check ID cards before loaning out books? This severely disadvantages the many many children who don't have state or federal ID cards.

Wait. What am I worried about my children being exposed to at the library, again?