David Levithan's new mid-level novel tackles the book ban

David Levithan’s new mid-level novel tackles the book ban

By David Levithan

When a child comes to you with big questions about the world, it’s nice to be able to say, “Here’s a book that’s going to help us understand. “Answers in the Pages,” by David Levithan, is such a book for kids wondering why books are challenged and what they can do about it.

The novel has three interwoven narrative threads: the main story is told in the first person by Donovan, a fifth-grade student whose mother launched a campaign to challenge a book assigned to him in English class: a novel action-adventure with possibly gay protagonists. The second thread gives us a look at “The Adventurers,” the delightfully cheesy made-up novel that Donovan’s mother opposes. The final thread, told in the third person, is a sweet story of first love between two boys (in the same school a generation earlier); its connection to the main story is a bit of a mystery until the end.

“Answers in the Pages” will empower young readers, as Donovan and his classmates come together to speak out in support of their teacher, the book, and their right to read it. They are part of the solution, injecting themselves into a conversation that some adults in their lives would rather hide from them.

Donovan is at first confused over the matter, then torn between supporting the book and supporting his family. There’s no ambiguity in his pro-book stance, but it’s hard to denounce his parents. Ultimately, for Donovan, this is a big part of implementing change.

The novel’s resolution is ordered in a way that real-world endings rarely are, but it provides a good primer for its targeted age group about censorship.

Levithan walks a fine line here. The characters in his novel who oppose “Les Aventuriers” do not express many overtly homophobic ideas; Donovan’s mother says the book is “inappropriate” but never explains why she thinks so. Although this seems true to life – parents who try to prevent their children from learning about homosexuality at school are unlikely to explain it to them at home in the process – it weakens the core tension of the narrative.

Donovan gleans his parents’ homophobia from classmates whose parents are less afraid of identity conversations, which sets an authentic tone. Children will learn all the complex truths of the world one way or another.

Despite its title, readers will likely end “Answers Within Pages” with big questions and bigger feelings, which is the best possible result. It’s an accessible and engaging look at the insidious and disturbing practice of empowering books that reflect diversity. And it’s likely to promote much-needed conversations between caregivers and children. I hope it finds its way to the shelves of school libraries and stays there (except of course when consulted by a young reader).

Challenging a book about what it means to challenge a book would take this conversation to a surreal level. Yet Levithan’s novel itself is everything Donovan’s mother and people like her object to: a celebration of quiet homosexuality, self-discovery, covenanting, how books can open up our world and spark both real and imagined adventures, because whether we love our same-sex friends as friends or more than friends, we deserve to have our stories told, read and shared.

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