Florida’s efforts to reignite the Puritanical book-banning of the 1600s are raging in 2023. In Orange County, a newly elected school board member who belongs to the ironically named Moms for Liberty movement has called for removing John Green’s award-winning book, “Looking for Alaska,” from school libraries.
Board member Alicia Farrant noted the book contains “lots of talk about girls’ bodies, drinking, smoking pot, lots of cussing.”
That’s true. It also contains lots of talk about comparative religion, U.S. presidents, teenage anxiety, childhood poverty and the value of education.
But Farrant was particularly disturbed by a two-page description of an awkward sexual encounter between two teens.
My first thought was that, if a modern-day teen is willing to bypass all the porn readily available on their phone (or their friends’ phones) and pick up a 250-page book full of thought-provoking prose — all to score a couple of pages of written descriptions of sex — most parents would laugh.
But I’ll tell you who’s not laughing: John Green.
The best-selling author chafes at efforts to ban his book, especially in his hometown of Orlando. He contends that it is misrepresentative — and frankly, bizarre — for anyone to label his book pornographic based on an excerpt or two.
“Pornography is designed to be titillating,” Green said. “Unless you get hot and bothered reading stories about grief and guilt and radical hope, I think it is very difficult indeed to construct the novel as pornographic.”
Indeed, most of the book is an homage to the complicated world of teenage enlightenment and anxieties.
See, I decided to do something many book-banners don’t — read the entire book. Why? Because it’s dishonest to demonize an entire book based on a few out-of-context pages.
After all, I recently read a book that had graphic descriptions of a prostitute who lusted after men with donkey-sized genitals and who pined to have her breasts fondled.
That book is the Bible. Ezekiel, to be precise.
Scholars say those biblical verses are really a metaphor for relationships between ancient lands. And they’re a tiny part of a complex, often beautiful and sometimes contradictory book that could be easily misrepresented by isolating any number of passages.
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Yet that is the tactic of book-banners.
“They remove one section of the book from all of its context,” Green said. “And of course it looks horrible.”
The author, a man of faith who once aspired to be a minister, said the main message in “Looking for Alaska” is that “hope is equally available to all people at all times.” Similar to the Bible’s message about salvation.
“So it is quite disturbing to be labeled a pornographer by people of my own faith.”
Imagine if I stood up in a school board meeting and read aloud only that line from the New International Version of Ezekiel about the woman who “lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.”
How wildly disingenuous that would be.
I asked Farrant if she had read the entire book she wanted to ban. She didn’t answer that question directly but cited several passages and said she objects to the term book-banning, saying: “We are simply curating content and complying with the law.”
I guess the same way some people curate broccoli off their plate and into the garbage disposal.
Farrant contends book bans aren’t much different than movie restrictions in schools and says she believes it should already be illegal for schools to carry Green’s book — even though Florida’s own censorship standards say books must be considered “as a whole.”
Farrant said: “We must always err on the side of caution when it comes to sexual content.”
I wonder if she feels the same way about the Bible. Listen, I know some parents don’t trust their own children’s ability to synthesize literature. They’re convinced their teen isn’t capable of reading a novel like “Looking for Alaska” — about life, death and relationships; a book that lingers on the topic of comparative religion and even discusses the redemptive humility of Jesus’ birth — without focusing on anything beyond a few sexually descriptive scenes.
Well, there are ways for those parents to keep their own teens sheltered. In neighboring Lake County, the school district provides access to a wide variety of books while offering parents the chance to prohibit their own children from reading mature content.
Green said: “No parent should be allowed to decide what other people’s kids can read.”
When I first read about Farrant’s book-banning crusade, I was annoyed I’d have to spend a couple of days reading Green’s book just to write about it from an informed perspective.
Now, I’m glad I did. “Looking for Alaska” is funny. And gut-wrenching. But as much as anything, Green’s debut book was incredibly well written. I can see why it won an award for young adult literature from the American Library Association. Because it makes teens think. And want to read more.
And boy, do they. Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” ranks as one of the best-selling books of all time, behind Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and ahead of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”
Interestingly, one of the early references to sex in “Looking for Alaska” occurs when the two lead characters, Alaska and Miles, stumble upon a porn video in another student’s prep-school dorm room. The two pop it in. But the scene serves mainly as an opportunity for the strong-willed Alaska to deliver a lecture about the evils of objectifying women — a theme that runs through the book until the very last scene.
That’s the kind of lesson that the book-banners of the world want to curate out of students’ reach.
© 2023 Orlando Sentinel