Photo Challenge: State of Mind

When I get too stressed and life gets to be too much, there’s a place I run away to. There’s not much there now – a small building with no roof, an old car, and this ruin, with two walls remaining. But it’s hidden. It’s quiet. All I will ever see there are birds and bugs. The photos I take there are always a bit melancholy. The black and white makes them more so. And since I’m always melancholy when I’m there, I think that’s appropriate.

tree wall 1 bw

Challenged – and Challenging – Books

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about whether fiction is a safe place, and my own experiences with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I determined that fiction – even if age-appropriate – is not only a dangerous place, but that it should be a dangerous place. That it should force you beyond your comfort zone, and push you to think about things you’d rather never consider, and in the process, make you grow. Make you stronger. Make you more diverse and broad-minded and hopefully, more educated.

One way in which religions and governments have always tried to control the populace is by controlling what they read. From the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books to the current push by individual school districts to ban certain books from school libraries, books have always been regarded as dangerous.

As well they should be.

Although the Index was abolished in 1966, it remains an indelible part of history. My students are flabbergasted to learn that great scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo had their works listed, that philosophers such as Descartes and Locke and Hume are on the list, that books such as Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were on the list.

Yet it’s no different than the efforts to ban certain books in schools across America today. Some, like Fifty Shades of Grey, I totally get – in fact, one librarian in Florida refused to put it in her library not due to the content, but because it was poorly written. 🙂 But that begs the question:  is it ever up to us to decide what someone else reads?

As a writer, I say no. As a teacher, I say no.

Fiction may not be a safe place – but it’s far safer for students to become exposed to issues like racism, drug/alcohol abuse, suicide, death, parental abuse, etc. than anywhere else. We want to ban books because they discuss such topics – but kids go through this every day. Not only that, but they’re online. They watch TV. They see this stuff anyway. The difference is, they see it in real life, with no tools to handle it or process it.

Fiction gives them those tools. By allowing them to read about fictional characters who are going through difficult situations, it allows them to see how this character handles it – and the results of their choices. It gives them a way to discuss what they would have done instead, or options the character may have had. They have a chance to identify with someone, perhaps someone who’s going through a very similar thing. Not only that, but these characters sometimes give kids a role model, someone to look up to. How many teenage girls went to archery ranges after The Hunger Games became popular? Maybe more importantly, how many of them realized that girls could hold their own against boys? Maybe even gave them the confidence to defend themselves if the need arose?

This is one reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is still a classic today. (We’ll forget that other, second book for a moment.) Through Scout’s eyes, we’re able to understand Jim Crow South. We’re able to see racism from her vantage point. We’re able to see the hatred and fear of the town, and the incredible courage Atticus Finch shows. Atticus (until that second book, anyway) gave us a father figure to look up to. Published in 1960, just six years after Brown v. Board of Education, just five years after the murder of Emmett Till, it showed the world the South that Harper Lee knew. It drove home the fact that the South she knew was still very much alive. And I like to think it gave whites the courage to stand up for what they knew was right, to start joining the fight for civil rights.

Was it challenged? Of course. By both blacks and whites, generally on grounds of racial content, racial slurs, profanity, and sexual content. It’s been challenged – and banned – since it was published.

But that’s the point. It challenged us. 

All good books should challenge us. That’s what good literature – whether adult or young adult – should do. The Hunger Games and Divergent challenge us to consider a future with a totalitarian government in which all civil rights are eradicated. Thirteen Reasons Why, although many people have pointed out that the reason for the suicide may not be believable, is still disturbing to a lot of adults – I taught this book in a Young Adult Fiction class designed for teachers, and I was surprised that this was the book that most disturbed them, that they didn’t think they could actually use in a classroom. The Book Thief forces us to consider the evils of Nazi Germany – but also, to recognize that not everyone bought into Hitler’s vision, and that many were just trying to survive.

So, yes. Some books are dangerous. Some make us question our beliefs. Some make us question our upbringing. Some make us question our society.

And that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do.


Some links you might find interesting: – the American Library Association’s ‘Banned Classic Book’ List – the most challenged books from 2000 – 2009. – the Index of Forbidden Books, from Fordham University



Photo Challenge: Time

I’m a historian. My life, my career, is all about making the passing of time relevant to others. To convince them that saving those fleeting moments is worthwhile.

I haunt estate sales, flea markets, auctions, seeking bits of history that might be lost forever to time. But I can honestly say that in more than 20 years of doing this, there have been only two times that time has ‘stood still’ for me.

The first was the moment, at an estate sale, I looked down at a table full of things and saw this beautiful maroon passport lying there. I opened it . . .

passport 2

passport 4-2


Yes. That’s April 1938 – the very month the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia. And yes. That’s a swastika. This passport is literally a passport to the past – small moments of time, preserved forever.







And this one . . . that date. September 6, 1939 – the very day Britain declared war on Germany. The owner of this passport, as far as I can tell, was literally at every single important point in pre-World War II history.

It’s the single most amazing thing that has ever found its way into my collection.

No, I don’t know much more about the man who owned this passport than I did when I found it two years ago. He was supposed to be a chemist . . . but I’m not sure I believe that!





Is Fiction a Safe Place?

Last week, I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories, Trigger Warning. But there’s a quote in there that struck me the first time I read it, and struck me again when I was writing that blog post. It’s this one:

“I wonder, are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered . . .”

I had a book like that. Well, to be fair, I saw the movie first, but when I was in high school, I read the book. It was The Picture of Dorian Gray. One night, when I was three or four, it was on television. In those days, there was one television in the house, and whatever was on, was on. Needless to say, it was quite some time before I slept well. At four, I had never considered the Big Ticket Items that Oscar Wilde gets to in this book. Selling your soul. Having a soul that can be sold. The existence of evil. The horrors of getting old.


If you’re not familiar with this novel, you need to read it. But in a nutshell:  Dorian Gray is a young dilettante – gorgeous, young, vain – who has a portrait done of himself. As he stares at it, he muses, “How sad it is! I shall grow old and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young . . . If only it were the other way! If it were I who were to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that, I would give everything . . . I would give my soul for that!” (Moral of Story #1:  Be careful what you wish for. Because you never know who is listening.)

To be fair, it’s been ages since I read it – when I was older, in high school. But it’s that movie version that has stayed with me, that final scene in which Gray dies and his staff rushes in to find a hideous old fiend dead on the floor . . . while the portrait has mysteriously regained its youth. It. Freaked. Me. Out.  Because it was the first time in my life that I understood mortality. I don’t think any four-year old should have to understand that. At least, not under those circumstances.

And yet. What else have I learned from books? There weren’t many books in the house when I was growing up, so I read the encyclopedia (took me about a year; I think I was four or five?). I would go to the library and just grab books off the shelf. I ran through the usual things like Billy and Blaze and other lovely books that are now out of print, but I always read at least one grade level ahead, usually two – and as I grew older, the gap got wider. So by the time I was in sixth grade, my classmates were reading Sweet Valley Twins and I was reading Dean Koontz. 🙂 Want to talk about disturbing? I was the only sixth grader who knew what a hermaphrodite was (thanks to The Bad Place). But hey. They were interesting and fast-paced and not only did they teach me about the world, they also taught me how to write. No one tells a better story than Koontz. I’m convinced of that. I’m just boycotting him until he gives us that final installment in the Christopher Snow series.

I learned history. Empathy for humans and animals alike. More so for animals. I learned about ciphers and encryption. Race relations. Ancient Greece and Rome. Ghosts and things that go bump in the night, things that still haunt my writing.

And yes. As Neil Gaiman says in Trigger Warning, these books upset him because “I was not ready for them . . . they troubled me and haunted my nightmares and my daydreams, worried and upset me on several levels, but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray disturbed me on several levels. It haunted my nightmares and my daydreams. It was so far out of my comfort zone as a four-year old, I don’t think I ever found my way back to my comfort zone. I think most of us have that one book, the one that changes us in some fundamental way. I think that’s why people are afraid of books. Because books make you think. They force you to confront new realities, new ways of thought.

They’re bloody dangerous, books.

And they are not safe places.

But would we have it any other way?

I think not.