Excerpt from Places I Never Meant to Be
Original Stories By Censored Writers
Edited and Introduction by Judy Blume
When I was growing up I’d heard that if a movie or book was “Banned in Boston” everybody wanted to see it or read it right away. My older brother, for example, went to see such a movie — The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell — and I wasn’t supposed to tell my mother. I begged him to share what he saw, but he wouldn’t. I was intensely curious about the adult world and hated the secrets my parents, and now my brother, kept from me.
A few years later, when I was in fifth grade, my mother was reading a novel called A Rage to Live, by John O’Hara, and for the first time (and, as it turned out, the only time) in my life, she told me I was never to look at that book, at least not until I was much older. Once I knew my mother didn’t want me to read it, I figured it must be really interesting!
So, you can imagine how surprised and delighted I was when, as a junior in high school, I found John O’Hara’s name on my reading list. Not a specific title by John O’Hara, but any title. I didn’t waste a minute. I went down to the public library in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that afternoon — a place where I’d spent so many happy hours as a young child, I’d pasted a card pocket on the inside back cover of each book I owned — and looked for A Rage to Live. But I couldn’t find it. When I asked, the librarian told me that book was restricted. It was kept in a locked closet, and I couldn’t take it out without written permission from my parents.
Aside from my mother’s one moment of fear, neither of my parents had ever told me what I could or could not read. They encouraged me to read widely. There were no “Young Adult” novels then. Serious books about teenagers were published as adult novels. It was my mother who handed me To Kill a Mockingbird and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl when they were first published.
By the time I was twelve I was browsing in the bookshelves flanking the fireplace in our living room where, in my quest to make sense of the world, I discovered J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, fell in love with the romantic tragedies of Thomas Hardy and the Brontë sisters, and overidentified with Marjorie Morningstar.
But at the Elizabeth Public Library the librarian didn’t care. “Get permission in writing,” she told me. When I realized she was not going to let me check out A Rage to Live, I was angry. I felt betrayed and held her responsible. It never occurred to me that it might not have been her choice.
At home I complained to my family, and that evening my aunt, the principal of an elementary school, brought me her copy of A Rage to Live. I stayed up half the night reading the forbidden book. Yes, it was sexy, but the characters and their story were what kept me turning the pages. Finally, my curiosity (about that book, anyway) was satisfied. Instead of leading me astray, as my mother must have feared, it led me to read everything else I could find by the author.
All of which brings me to the question What is censorship? If you ask a dozen people you’ll get twelve different answers. When I actually looked up the word in The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia I found this definition: “[The] official restriction of any expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order.” My thesaurus lists the following words that can be used in place of ban (as in book banning): Forbid. Prohibit. Restrict. But what do these words mean to writers and the stories they choose to tell? And what do they mean to readers and the books they choose to read?
I began to write when I was in my mid-twenties. By then I was married with two small children and desperately in need of creative work. I wrote Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret right out of my own experiences and feelings when I was in sixth grade. Controversy wasn’t on my mind. I wanted only to write what I knew to be true. I wanted to write the best, the most honest books I could, the kinds of books I would have liked to read when I was younger. If someone had told me then I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I’d have laughed.