Archive | September, 2014

Ban Book Banning: Read with Your Brain Turned On

24 Sep

I’m blogging early this week because I have some busy days ahead, but I didn’t want Banned Book Week to go by without mentioning it.

You would think that as a Christian writer, I’d be all for banning books—particularly those that are “bad” for us and our children.

Well, you’d be wrong.

I’m against reading many of the books that are popular in our culture, but I can’t support forbidding them.

Book banning is usually the result of a person or group of people who decide what they think is best for everyone and who exert great energy to turn their personal views into an edict. The problem is, there are as many different viewpoints as there are people, and theoretically, if everyone were allowed to strike those books they thought “bad” because they contain profanity, opposing politics, violence, racism, religious references, or (name your offense here), there would be little quality literature left on the shelves. For example, one of my favorite books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl was once placed in a Colorado school’s locked reference collection because a librarian thought the book embraced a “poor philosophy of life.”

Think that’s ridiculous? Well, in 2010, a school district in Riverside California even banned Webster’s Dictionary because it contained sexual content. Now, truth be told, I’m still smarting because the Webster gurus recently made “nother” a word (as in, that’s a whole nother issue), but I’m not going to swear off dictionaries because of it.

I do, however, highly endorse employing a bit of discernment when choosing books, particularly with regard to stocking school libraries. Middle schoolers do not need access to sexually explicit materials, and high schoolers do not need access to bomb-making instruction manuals, and NO SCHOOL needs to stock Fifty Shades of Grey. There are so many good books in the world, librarians should have no trouble accumulating age-appropriate literature for their shelves.

I also firmly believe in knowing what my children are reading and being available to discuss their books with them. I learned the hard way. When my oldest was a teenager, I eagerly fed his desire for Goosebumps books because I was just thrilled that he wanted to read. I never read any of them. A few years later, he saw me sorting through books to keep for his younger brother and urged me to throw them out. He said they were awful—kids died in nearly every book, and they were depressing.

In shock, I asked why he’d read them all then. He shrugged and said, “They were addicting.”

So now, I attempt to read every book my youngest reads—a feat that is becoming more difficult now that he’s in high school, but it has paid off. Last year, his freshman English class was assigned Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. It is a terrific story told from the viewpoint of a mentally feeble young man, but it contains three of what I believe are inappropriate scenes for a teenage boy. I was so glad I read them first. I marked the pages and told my son of my concerns but said he could read them if he really wanted to. He chose not to, so I filled in with a PG-rated description of the events and he was still able to pass all related quizzes and even write a good essay. Frankly, I would have been greatly disappointed if he’d wanted to read it, so I was quite proud at his decision. And I am greatly disappointed in his teacher for not finding something better suited out of all the good literature available. However, I think that if I’d outright forbidden him to read it, he would only have been more inclined to see what all the fuss was about.

The following books have been banned (or are still banned) in some schools:

Books from the banned list

Contraband…I may be in deep trouble.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank

Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

If the irony of that last one doesn’t make your heart hurt, you need to add it to your reading list.

The banned book list is much longer, but these are books I’ve read, loved, learned from. They entertain, educate, and often give insight into other people’s trials and tragedies, and their triumphs. Many I would not recommend to my youngest—yet, but others we’ve already shared. I can still remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird when I was a teenager. I couldn’t fathom racism because I lived in a nearly all white community in Rhode Island, but I was able to recognize it for what it was when I joined the military and saw how some people treated others, and I believe it made me a bit more empathetic than I might have been. How could someone ban that book? I’ll never understand.

Why am I so adamant about banning book banning? Well, just this week I learned that a California school is tossing out all Christian themed books and books by Christian authors. The school superintendent who mandated the removal said the school would  “not allow sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

Included in that list of literature that is now denied to their students would be Holocaust survivor, Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, and technically, I guess, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series as well. How about the writings of Rev Martin Luther King Jr? Was he not a Christian? What a dangerous, slippery slope we’re on if this is allowed to continue.

The upside of this recent insanity, for me anyway, is that although my book in progress would be banned at this school without even being read, it would put me on a list with C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, and Corrie Ten Boom—I cannot imagine a greater honor!


(Note for busy parents: If you cannot keep up with your child’s reading, there are apps and websites that will check books for appropriateness and even tell you about specific words or scenes to expect and their context. I recommend Plugged In, at


Writing Tips about Readers: One is Enough to Get You Started

19 Sep
Stephen King's On Writing

Good place to start a writing journey

Today’s blog is inspired by Stephen King, and an unknown reader.

I’ve just finished reading a book that I recommend to anyone who writes or wants to, whether for a living or just for the simple pleasure of putting words on the page.

It’s Stephen King’s On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft.

Author’s Note: Let me make it clear here, I tend to avoid Stephen King books because I have an imagination that cannot relinquish images once they flash before my mind’s eye. (The Green Mile’s John Coffey is as real to me as any person I’ve ever met; he scares me, and he’s one of the good guys.)  However, I appreciate good writing and admire King’s work because he can create those vivid images, and in a way that seems effortless. In fact, if he weren’t such a phenomenal writer, I wouldn’t have to avoid his work—how’s that for a back-handed compliment?

But this book is different. It’s a beautiful depiction of writing as a passion that, once it grabs you, simply must be acknowledged and satisfied. King’s memoir weaves stories of his personal journey with bits of advice and encouragement to writers and examples of beautiful prose in a way that would have inspired me to quit my day job if I hadn’t already. He makes me appreciate anew the joy of writing for writing’s sake.

And as a bonus, from the pages of King’s beautifully written narrative, I’ve picked up two valuable bits of advice that I’m incorporating into my life right away.

The first is that to write, one must read. If Stephen King says so, it must be so.

All I can say is, YAY!

(If there were a way to make that look happier without one of those flashy neon “marching ants” borders, I’d do it; it’s just that cool. But for now, “Yay!” will have to suffice).

So, in the Portrait Writer’s world, reading is now a sanctioned, necessary part of the job. That’s like sending a kid to a candy shop for time out. To all of you back at the office who are still suffering through those annual training classes on filling out travel claims and understanding the importance of submitting form 3C with your timecard request to adjust for an unanticipated increase in traffic volume on I95, I can only say…

“Boo-ya! I’m studying Barbara Kingsolver!”

Of course, I will share my reading adventures and recommendations along the way, so you can skip right to the good stuff on your own reading list. (Life’s too short to waste time reading bad books.)

The second concept I’m adopting is to write to an ideal audience, and this epiphany couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve learned over the past few weeks that not everyone likes everything I write (gasp!) and, if I took to heart all the advice I’ve received lately, my next blog would be a politically correct, non-offending piece of drivel. I’m grateful for every person who reads my blog, and I appreciate your feedback, particularly because it helps me see some things from different perspectives, but it won’t change my writing. In fact, I suspect that when I hit a nerve, it’s not the words that cause you to wince.

King suggests writers choose one person that they respect and know well, and write only to that person. And so I have identified my ideal reader as a young man we’ll call Fred. He’s well educated and knows who God is, but has never really read God’s love letter to mankind. He’s angry at this entity we call God and, as a matter of fact, is gathering evidence to support his claim that if God does exist, He can’t possibly care for us very much. I cannot convince Fred otherwise, but I can show him over time why I believe differently.

And by the way, Fred thinks I’m hilarious. That’s why every once in a while I have to write something silly, just to make him laugh.

Fred, I promise you that if you keep reading, I will keep writing. I wish I could promise more, but the rest is not up to me. I’m a Proverbs 16:9 girl; I’m not sure where this train is heading, but I’m glad to be along for the ride.


In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” Pr 16:9


What’s Green and Hurts All Over?

6 Sep


I never really gave it much thought, but over the summer, as I drove through Virginia’s southern counties, its pervasiveness intrigued me. I did some research and now I find the plant fascinating, or at least, its story. It’s a story of compromise.

Kudzu came to America in the 1800s the way sin enters one’s life—as a beautiful and desirable object from a distant land we’d heard of, but never seen. Let’s not call kudzu alien or unnatural to the region…that sounds so unrefined; how about exotic? What a delightfully mysterious word, exotic.

All the nicest gardens just had to have Japanese kudzu, that hearty and lush vine-bush that grew quickly and provided wonderful shade. Of course, like all exotic possessions, it came at a steep price, but with a little reshuffling of funds (perhaps we could use that money set aside for charity this month…?) status quo was obtained.

During the depression era, someone discovered that kudzu could stop soil erosion. The government began pressuring southern farmers to take it out of their pots and gardens and plant it around their fields and along highways; they pressured the way young men pressure young women to do things they ought not. In some cases, the government even paid farmers to defile their soil. And the farmers agreed, because, well, everyone was doing it. And besides, it wasn’t exactly unpleasant.

Soon, the farmers realized they’d made a mistake, and that new life was being created at rapid rates. The government said, “Wow, that’s quite a mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” and turned away. They went back to Washington, removed it from their list of species acceptable for use under the Agricultural Conservation Program, and labeled it a weed.

Kudzu planted its roots deep into the Georgia and South Carolina soil, strengthening into a network of obstinate toddler-like tendrils that shot up and raced across the ground, stopping to climb mailboxes and telephone poles. It was cute at the beginning, like a child’s first swear words, or those “But I wanted a trophy!” temper tantrums that we’d video tape, chuckling. Coddling fools, we lifted some of the barriers so they wouldn’t feel stifled—anything to keep the little ones happy. Next thing we knew, the vine children became rebellious teenagers, racing over and past farmland boundaries, pushing down fences, climbing over walls of absolute truth that blocked their paths, and yelling, “Progress through freedom!”

Winding its way up and around. Isn't it pretty?

Winding its way up and around. Isn’t it pretty?

Throughout the late 1900s, the vines thrived through a system of situational ethics supported by the motto, “anything goes if it benefits me.” They started climbing trees, wrapping their manipulative tendrils around even the tallest and heartiest species.

Townspeople noticed, but did nothing.

“The leaves make a pretty contrast against the forest, and it isn’t hurting anyone,” they’d say to protesters. “Stop being so dramatic and show some tolerance, for Pete’s sake.”

Others said, “Sheesh! It’s not as bad as cogon grass or privet, so what’s all the fuss over a few weeds?”

The trees noticed though, because they’d become embroiled in a battle over light and nutrients, and the war was very real to them.

Kudzu devouring a hillside

It’s not really hurting anything…

Sadly, their age and wisdom were no match for agility and avarice, and millions of acres from Florida to North Carolina (and now Virginia) and as far west as Texas were smothered and choked. Kudzu and other weeds like it now consume an estimated 150,000 acres of trees and other flora each year. Under every one of those delightful green towers (look Dad, that one is shaped like a clown!) is a dead or dying tree that once contributed greatly to our ecosystem.

In 1998 it was listed by the U.S. Congress as a Federal Noxious Weed, but this fancy label didn’t come with an eradication plan. Besides, some people enjoyed it. They fed it to their animals, made baskets, and chopped it up to use as fertilizer.

“I’ve got it under control in my back yard; I’m not too worried about your problems.”

In Japan, it’s made into jelly, so we may as well make room on the store shelves now. It’s coming, whether you like it or not. If you don’t, you’re a hater.

Can it be defeated? Possibly. People once tried to introduce an insect that supposedly eats the kudzu vine. Regrettably, it also devoured soybean crops. They’ve tried locating the root crown, which can be quite deep, and destroying it, but some reports say even the tiniest sliver of surviving crown can regenerate. Many eradication methods could work, but it will require a strong stand against compromise and a lot of effort. Too much effort it seems, now that the beast has been allowed to run wild for so long. In some regions entire houses, barns, and silos have been overrun, as if it were easier to leave than fight. Perhaps the owners just didn’t want to be seen as bullies.

Yes, it’s bleak out there, but what do you think? Is the battle lost?

kudzu overwhelming roadside

Kudzu, or muscadine, or porcelain berry, or Virginia creeper. I’m not a botanist and can’t swear, but the vines are all similar, and inflicting similar damage.

“Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”  — James 1:15