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Censorship for Me, Penelope

Girl, Interrupted
By ALEX IRVINE  |  March 4, 2009

BANNED BOOK Me, Penelope.

Lisa Jahn-Clough's young-adult novel Me, Penelope is just out in trade paperback. The story of "Lopi" Yeager and her struggles with love, sex, guilt, and independence, Me, Penelope was also the subject of a recent dispute at Tavares Middle School in Orlando, Florida, where the parents of a seventh-grader who had checked the book out spearheaded a drive that got it banned from the school library's shelves.

The first Jahn-Clough heard about the brewing controversy was from the librarian who had ordered the book. "She said she was in favor of keeping it there," Jahn-Clough recalls, "but wanted to alert me of the situation. Then my publisher contacted me and said that the Orlando paper wanted to interview me and was I willing. I spoke to a reporter and that was it."

The article in the Orlando Sentinel contained all the expected elements of these dramas — the outraged parent who protests a little too much about how he doesn't really want any books banned, the school administrator who lauds the professionalism of the district librarians but in the next breath says the parent is right, and the obligatory quote from the author, who doesn't get what the whole fuss is about. At the time, Jahn-Clough commented to the Sentinel that she had considered her audience's age when deciding how to handle the sexual elements in the story and that she thought Lopi made "some pretty strong and, I think, noble choices."

(The local Fox affiliate, WOFL, also aired a breathless piece about the controversy which was notable mostly for the fact that one of the station's anchors pronounced Penelope's name as if it rhymed with "envelope." The station has since removed the video.)

It's practically a canard that any publicity is good publicity, but Jahn-Clough isn't certain the Orlando controversy has had any effect on sales of Me, Penelope. What she has seen is a higher profile for herself and the book. "Some people (writers, librarians and publishers mostly) are very aware of challenged and banned books and make efforts to publicize them and support intellectual freedom and choice," she wrote in an e-mail from Savannah, Georgia, where she moved from Portland last year. "The librarian of the town where it was banned said several parents went out and ordered the book to see what the fuss was all about."

And, of course, all of this happened shortly before the release of the paperback, which hit shelves Monday. Jahn-Clough is working on several projects from Savannah, where she teaches part-time and where her partner, author/illustrator Ed Briant, teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design. (She swears she'll never give up her house in Portland, though.)

The author/illustrator appellation applies equally well to Jahn-Clough herself. "My next book is going to be a picture book about bunnies and hot-air balloons," she says. "I am also working on a sequel to Me, Penelope at my publisher's request," since any publisher sees controversy as something to be capitalized on. The new book follows Lopi to college, but Jahn-Clough is reluctant to say much about it beyond the fact that it involves Lopi's "search for her lost father."

Jahn-Clough is ambivalent about the experience of joining the hallowed company of banned YA authors, which has in the past included writers as diverse as Judy Blume, Maurice Sendak, Robert Cormier, and J.K. Rowling. "It is a strange thrill to have a book challenged — it's nice to know that people are at least noticing it, and it does put the title on some new lists, almost like a badge of honor," she says. "What bothers me is that it actually got banned and now no one in that school district has access to it, even if they were 'mature readers.'"

  Topics: News Features , censorship, PENELOPE, Libraries,  More more >
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