Donovan read a couple of chapters in the new book Mr. Howe had assigned, then left it in the kitchen while he went to watch tv. Before he realized what had happened, his mom came home from work and read some of it. She told him that she felt that it was inappropriate, took it away from him, and started calling up the other mothers in Mr. Howe’s language arts class. Donovan was filled with confusion. What in the world could be wrong with The Adventurers? He knew that his mom read the ending pages of a book before she started it. If only he could see those ending pages now!
Gideon loved turtles. He had 84 of them, but only Samson was a real, live turtle. The others were wood, stone, stuffed, or blown glass. When his teacher assigned Harriet the Spy to the class and had everyone partner with another student for a project, Gideon was secretly pleased to be paired with the new boy, Roberto of the dimpled smile. Roberto enjoyed writing in their project notebook and thought Gideon’s game of finding all the words he could within longer words was cool. He even thought turtles were cool.
In between chapters about Donovan or Gideon, the author, David Levithan, has inserted chapters of the fictitious challenged book, The Adventurers, which is an over-the-top, 1950s-style story in which Oliver, Rick, and Melody have fantastical capers involving escapes from cages hanging over boiling geysers, outsmarting bears, and motorcycle rescues wearing handcuffs. In the audiobook, these pages are read by an older man with a melodramatic voice whom you expect to say “lads” or “chums” any second.
Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Gideon’s story happened in the past, while Donovan’s story is building up to the climax at the school board meeting. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Howe, is a gay man with a husband, and it is difficult to find any glaring problems with the book he assigned. Donovan suspects that his mother is concerned with the violence, but his classmates point out that the last page hints at an attraction between Rick and Oliver. On the other hand, Gideon and Roberto’s story does blossom into a very young romance, which is completely accepted by Roberto’s parents. Levithan, a gay man who is a prize-winning author, brings these three storylines together unexpectedly at the end of the book.
In this era of book banning that sets parents against teachers and librarians, with school boards often capitulating to the loudest voices in order to secure reelection, the ones who get lost are often the children. Levithan explores the experiences and emotions of two vulnerable pawns in the censorship game: the child whose mother is leading the charge and the child who identifies with the character in the book being challenged.
Levithan has written this middle grade novel for fourth to sixth graders, and parents can also read it to consider how they would have approached the situation differently, if at all. Levithan’s books, particularly his teen novels, have been among the most challenged books for years, so he has had time to consider the process and its effects on kids. If the reader gets only one conclusion from Answers in the Pages, it would be that it is so important to talk to—and listen to— your own children before speaking in public.
Appealing and thought-provoking, this is one of the first children’s books on this topic. I look forward to reading A.S. King’s book on censorship coming out in September.
Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.