Spoiler alert: major plot details are divulged…
I have a daughter attending Franklin Middle School who's extremely keen to read a book titled The Fault in Our Stars. She tells me that her friends know it by the initials TFIOS.
Always searching for an opportunity to engage with my middle-schooler (and having heard a few cautionary words about the book) I began to read it aloud to her. It was something we could do together.
The book is about a girl fighting a losing battle with cancer who falls in love with a boy who has already lost his leg to cancer. By the end of the book he has lost his life. We didn't get that far.
I kept running into profanities and other things I really didn’t want to read aloud to my daughter, but I did my best to give this book its opportunity to shine. The book did have its moments, but about half way into it I threw in the towel and decided that its (very limited) merits did not even begin to overcome its startling shortcomings as a novel for middle-school children.
My bad for not doing the obvious (looking this book up online to get the basics on it beforehand) but I realized only a few pages ahead of my daughter that the protagonist Hazel Grace (who is sixteen) has sex with her seventeen year old boyfriend Gus. We put the book down just in time to miss that moment.
I skimmed the rest of the book after my daughter went to bed and found myself sorry I had begun it with a daughter who is still in middle-school. It is completely inappropriate material for a child her age. I would invite anyone who thinks I'm over-reacting to take a look at Exhibit A, which is a scan of a page I am very thankful to report I will not be reading aloud to her or anyone else in my house.
My reason for writing this post is not to say that this book should banned from every library in America. Let mature readers enjoy the book for what (limited) merits they find in it.
No, I am writing today to ask one simple question that I think we as a community ought to answer together.
As a community, do we or do we not want to encourage our young children to experiment with sex?
Of course someone will want to define terms and quibble about what constitutes “young children”, so let’s keep two numbers in mind: 16 and 11.
Sixteen? That’s how old Hazel Grace is. A teacher from Wheaton North recently went to prison for having sex with a 16-yr old girl. If it wasn’t a bad thing, perhaps he should be exonerated?
Eleven? That’s how old our sixth-graders are when they arrive at Franklin.
So let’s be a bit more specific.
As a community, do we or do we not want to encourage eleven year old children to experiment with sex?
You'd think our collective answer to this question would be an emphatic No.
Yet here we are. Along the left edge of Exhibit A image there are three lines, and each one invites a question.
Franklin Middle School (Should children be reading this book?)
Library Learning Center (What should they learn from it?)
Wheaton, Illinois (Do we approve of this?)
I titled this blog The Fault in Our Schools, and it’s a fair title. Whether knowingly or not, someone in our school system made a pretty big mistake making this book available in the Franklin Middle School library. (The Hogwarts library had a restricted section, but to my knowledge the Franklin library does not. J.K. Rowling seems to understand something that our school system has yet to work out. There are some things that younger students should not see.)
That having been said, I’m not particularly upset with Franklin Middle School or even CUSD 200. On this topic CUSD 200 will bend to the opinion of the wider community, and pretty quickly. If there was anything approaching universal outrage, they’d have this book (and others like it) gone from the shelves pretty quickly.
No, my friends, I'm upset with us. the better title to this blog would be The Fault with Our Scars. What do I mean? I’ll explain.
On page 310 of TFIOS a letter to Hazel Grace ends with these words: “May God bless and keep you, Hazel.” That prayer comes from the Old Testament, and if author John Green gets to quote scriptures I hope I’ll be forgiven the same crime. There is a reference in the New Testament to “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.”
That’s why I say again that the fault is with our scars.
In decades past, this would not have happened in Wheaton, Illinois. When I attended Franklin in the early eighties it didn't happen. We all know why. Parents would have been up in arms. Plain and simple.
But we've come a long way since then. We've become more scarred. Our community’s collective conscience has become so seared that we no longer feel the pain when our children are encouraged to engage in risky and unhealthy behaviors. We no longer rise in unison to protect our children as was once the case.
If we did, the book would go. But we’re so scarred, we hardly notice.
We’re such a sex-saturated society, we are not appalled by the fact that at one point in this book Isaac (same boy from Exhibit A) jokes with Hazel grace about porn. Their nonchalant conversation reinforces for our children the notion that porn is OK. Again, what adults do with porn in this free society can and ought to be discussed elsewhere. But I’d still like to think that most of us recognize that porn is NOT OK for children.
But this book teaches by example that porn IS OK. Protagonist Hazel Grace (Grace?) teaches our children as much by what she does not say as by why she does say. And we, my friends, do the same.
Hazel Grace jokes to Isaac about sending him some porn. He jokes back that she might want to wait a few weeks until he's not checking email with the help of his mother.
Oh the sweet irony!! CUSD 200 would fall over themselves any day of the week to assure the community that school filters would catch this stuff and prevent it from happening on school computers. But this book in their library celebrates the discretion of passing porn around in a manner that evades the notice of parents.
Let’s hark back to my opening comment. The kids know the book by its initials. That means they are reading it. A lot of them.
As they say, “Once, shame on you. Twice, shame on me.” In this case I’d say, “That the book was put in the Franklin library? Shame on CUSD 200. That it stays in the library? Shame on us.”
I'm focused on the US part of that statement. It's OUR fault that this book is still in that library. If enough of us agree on what is best for our children, perhaps this book and others like it can be encouraged out the doors of our school libraries.
Or we can just wait like frogs in a kettle of water for the temperature to rise another degree.
PS - By the way, while I will not be reading any more of this book aloud to my daughter, I have provided her a copy of this blog and look forward to talking with her about it.