Monday, March 31, 2014

Books Can Teach...In More Ways Than One (by Margie Gelbwasser)

I used to have grand visions of my books being used in the classroom. It didn't have to be as a class lesson. I would have been fine with teachers suggesting them as independent reads.

But, shortly after my books came out, I realized not only would they not be used in the classroom, but that some people would use them to stop me from even SPEAKING to their classes. My first novel, INCONVENIENT, is about a Russian-Jewish girl whose mother is an alcoholic. My MC, Alyssa, deals with regular teenage stuff (e.g. distant best friend, on again, off again boyfriend) as well as the impact her culture has on her mother's alcoholism. INCONVENIENT received praise from SLJ, Booklist, and VOYA and was named a 2010 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens. And there were teachers who used it for a book club and wanted me to come and talk about creative writing, the writing process, etc. I am super thankful to these people for giving me the opportunity to connect with students and reach teens. However, others latched onto a heavy make-out scene, characters drinking, etc. The drinking was never portrayed in a positive light, but I felt it gave those who didn't really read the book an excuse to hail it as inappropriate. However, while these things bothered me, they were NOTHING compared to the lashings I received for my second novel, PIECES OF US.

Honestly, I was not prepared at all from what transpired after writing POU. I guess I was na├»ve. POU deals with cyberbullying, rape, dating violence, and physical and sexual abuse. There is cursing (a lot—but only by one character), and this was what those who hated the book (and yeah, that's the right word because there was hardly anyone in between—they either really got it and loved it or wanted to stone me) held onto. As if the use of bad words by a misogynistic character was proof the novel was trash. They also targeted the sexual violence, citing it was disgusting and completely inappropriate. These things may happen but no one needs to write about them, they said. Rape IS disgusting and totally inappropriate, and I'm sure those who are raped or abused agree. But by banning me from writing about it, that's like saying all the young men and women who go through this should keep silent. I read reviews that said I wasn't fit to be a parent if I wrote about things like this (I was told this to my face at a book club too). Hateful reviews also did a LOAD of victim blaming calling my abused character a whore. Another MC in the book, a teen boy, is forced into sexual situations with women. I was very disturbed to see that many readers did not see him as a victim. What guy would not want to touch a girl? these reviews asked. This kind of judgement is what many teens live with daily. This is what victims and survivors live with. So, while I never thought POU would be taught in a classroom, I also never expected the vitriol I received (and still do) for writing it.

Another thing I didn't expect? The letters and the reviews thanking me for writing POU. More than with INC, I received e-mails and read blogs where readers thanked me for telling their story and that of others like them. An e-mail I treasure the most is one a teen wrote me that said she wished she had read my book years ago because it would have given her the courage to leave an abusive relationship.

I'm not going to lie. I do wish one of my novels will one day be taught in a classroom. I recently wrote something that may have that possibility. But I am proud of my first two novels and the ability they have to help the voiceless break their silence.


  1. I'd be proud of those books, too, Margie!

  2. Those kinds of negative responses are so disturbing to me. Have you been following Kelly Jensen's librarian blog Stacked on this subject? She's done a whole series on girls in YA fiction--and reader responses to those girls--and it's fascinating.

  3. Jody, I think she may have written about Pieces of Us. Can you please send me link to this thread? Would like to read!