Stephen King is Wrong

and so are some of my friends

Stephen King is Wrong. Backdrop of multiple books, seen from above, shown in shades of blue and orange.

“…when books are run out of school classrooms and even out of school libraries as a result of this idea, I’m never much disturbed not as a citizen, not as a writer, not even as a schoolteacher . . . which I used to be. What I tell kids is, Don’t get mad, get even. Don’t spend time waving signs or carrying petitions around the neighborhood. Instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or to the local bookstore and get whatever it was that they banned. Read whatever they’re trying to keep out of your eyes and your brain, because that’s exactly what you need to know.”

I respect the hell out of Stephen King and have learned a lot from him. But this quote getting passed around right now infuriates me.

Don’t protest in public, King says, because this is all about you, one individual. And surely, you, that individual, have access to books. You have computer access and a credit card. Or where you live has a non-school library or local bookstore. You have the money and a way to get there. Those places with books are curated by people who haven’t bought into the “save our children from these evil, twisted, racist, homo, divisive books” attitude.

And you don’t have parents or guardians who will beat you if they find you with these books.

You’re not a queer or trans kid, getting bullied every day…

You aren’t a Jewish kid in a mostly Christian town…

You aren’t a Black kid, or an Indigenous kid, or an Asian kid, or a kid dumpster diving for dinner, and living in a car…

You aren’t this kid who just might come across a book on a school library shelf that assures you that there’s more than your classes are telling you. That somewhere, there is someone out there who understands. That you aren’t alone.

***

I understand why this quote has captured the imaginations of many people I know—including other writers. For one thing, he’s correct in saying that the books that are getting banned are likely the ones we need to read. Also, he invokes the spirit of rebellion, of, “I won’t do what you tell me.” The quote invokes the heady, romantic spirit of a free thinker, the one with just enough daring to buck the odds.

But not everyone has that daring, or the chance to exercise it. Sometimes other people have ensured that any spark of rebellion is crushed as early on as possible. All too often, the stakes for disobedience and non-conformity are ratcheted up until the extremes are so high, it might just cost a kid their life.

And it has.

Do you know how many bullied kids die from suicide every year?

Do you know how many kids are sent to conversion camps?

Do you know how many kids are brutalized, tortured, neglected, or killed?

And on the other end, do you know how many sanitized books are published, and presented to school boards instead? Books filled with false history, and written not by Black—or queer, or Jewish, or Latine, or Indigenous authors—but by those in positions of relative power? These books to often tell a “truth” seen through a lens of acceptability. These books too often tell us things just aren’t that bad for kids. And that history has mostly, always, been fair and kind.

Those kinds of books also tell us, “You’re on your own. Because no one in the world has ever had it as bad as you… and survived to tell the tale.”

What does that do to a person’s spirit?

We need access to the stories told by the ones who made it through.*

***

So yes, we should protest. We should hound school boards. We should fucking well speak out. We must speak out for each other. We must speak out because there is such a thing as the common good. Everything does not boil down to individual choice and personal power. Thinking it does fails us, time and time again.

United States school boards are a battleground right now. The “critical race theory” bogeyman is part of the fight. So are whitewashed textbooks. And so are banned books.

If you think kids should just take some initiative, and face all this alone?

I beg you to rethink this. Now.

Because on this matter? Stephen King is wrong.

T. Thorn Coyle

Portland, OR

January 30, 2022

*Edited to add: we also need stories about acceptance, joy, taking chances, and thriving, told by as many perspectives as possible. I want kids to have access to those stories, too.

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