We’ve read recently about controversy over YA author Laurie Halse Anderson’s recent novel, Wintergirls, in which a high school girl struggles with anorexia and her friend’s death from the disease.  Critics of the book say it serves as a “how-to” guide to anorexia for young people.

In related news, school officials at Williamson County Schools in Franklin, Tennessee, have decided to remove the Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA) list of “best books for young adults” from the district’s website after one parent and one school board member objected to some of the included titles, calling them “extraordinarily salacious, sensual, and sensationalistic.”

The idea that reading about something leads the reader to do or become those things is a common argument for – and often cause of – censorship across media forms, from books to video games.  There are a variety of topics presented in books and other media that some people find to be:

  • objectionable (such as violence, sexual abuse, or profanity),
  • difficult (such as suicide, anorexia, or depression),
  • just topics they don’t want their kids to read about (sex, sexuality, other religious traditions and practices), to name a few.

Both the controversy over Wintergirls and the removal of the YALSA list fit into a persistent trend of associating what you read with how you behave.  The argument that reading a book about a character with an eating disorder causes the reader to emulate that action is the latest example.

One struggle for me in writing this is that the critics of Wintergirls may in some ways be right: some people who read the book will also develop anorexia.  Readers at risk may well do so even without reading the book.  The most significant variable is not the literature someone reads, but the human factor: the medical history (physical and mental) and life experience of the reader.

The objections to Wintergirls also fail to deal with the reality of eating disorders as both psychological and physical diseases.  Whether or not you think the book serves as an instructional manual for readers at risk for developing anorexia, banning the book from school libraries or otherwise keeping it from teens in many ways ignores a problem young people are struggling with.  It makes the subject taboo, and it demonstrates the lack of trust we often have in young adults to think critically about what they read.

And, as the removal of the YALSA list from the Williamson County Schools website shows, the objections of a few really can suppress the reading choices of many others.  Even if a book is not right for some readers, it may be helpful for others.  While parents can make choices about their own children’s reading, the First Amendment right to read is at risk when one person’s concerns are imposed on everyone else.

Eating disorders, like other difficult subjects, are a very real issue for teens.  Instead of keeping books from teens who want to read them (Wintergirls and the YALSA titles in question in Franklin, TN, are the latest examples), why not treat the books as an entryway for discussion about these issues?  This would both support teens and their concerns and also provide a framework for them to talk about difficult subjects.  It would also validate them as individuals capable of reading and thinking critically – and as people capable of identifying key differences between what they read and what they do.