Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Which Kelly Does Not Post About The Thing She Was Going To Post About

Or something.

Look, I had it all planned out: my son and I have been reading the Code of the Jedi before bed as a guide to Good Behavior for High Spirited Kindergarten Boys. And it's been effective. And I was all set to do a post on the problems of passion for the budding young Jedi and how that relates to fiction.

But you know what? I'm not gonna.

Because sometimes our brains and hearts get sidetracked on something so huge that it leaks everywhere - into our fiction, into our blogs, into perfectly ordinary conversations with sweet little old neighbor ladies named Eunice who had thought that we were just going to be chatting about the weather.

But I didn't want to chat about the weather. Or passion. Or the Jedi Code. What I want to talk about today is the sex trafficking industry and its exploitation of homeless kids.

I know. Heavy. But bear with me.

A few years ago, I took a job working as a GED teacher at a drop-in center for homeless youth in Minneapolis. It was a ridiculously cool job. I got to hang out with teens who were really in a tough spot in their lives - I wrote with them, played pool with them, recommended books, watched their kids, and helped to fill in the gaps in their education so they could earn their equivalency degree. I was a sounding board for a lot of kids. I listened. A lot. They yelled at me, and confided in me, and cried with me, and told me jokes.  For many of my students, I also helped them navigate through the labyrinth of community college applications and financial aid. It was a tough job, frustrating at times, and I worried day and night for my students.

These kids slept in a different place every night. Because we didn't require them to be under the care of social services (we preferred the 'gentle nudge' approach) we had a lot of kids who came for meals, and came for the safety, but still didn't know where they were going to sleep that night. They slept in abandoned houses, or a friend's couch, or in the park. And by doing so, they were terribly terribly at risk - not for violence or for accidental death (though those certainly happened) but many, many of them fell victim to sex traffickers.

He're the ugly numbers. In the state of Minnesota, there are 20,000 kids under eighteen who are currently homeless. I'm just gonna let that sink in. That's ten high schools full of kids, all without a safe place to sleep. Most homeless youth (we're talking in the range of 90%) are approached for sex-for-hire within 48 hours of becoming homeless (this according to an attorney general report in Minnesota). Nationwide, the average age (average) for entrance into prostitution is 13. And lastly, and most upsettingly, in our country, there are 300,000 boys and girls under the age of 18 who are currently working as prostitutes.

Now, I bring this up for two reasons. First of all, I'm sure all of you have been following the resultant campaign in response to a rather misguided idiot who wanted to ban Laurie Halse Anderson's magnificent book Speak. What I found so compelling, so heartening about what came out of that was the resounding voice of a broad reading public who all agreed that there is a place for advocacy in fiction. Speak is an important book, not only because it is well written and a stark, clear-eyed view into a teenager's life, but because it forces the reader to feel the consequences of sexual violence. Because the reader empathizes with that level of pain, violation and humiliation, we come away from that book feeling that this must not happen.

This must not happen!

And then we act.

I recently read a book called Dirty Work, and another called Chloe Doe, and another called Sold  all three of which deal explicitly with the reality of both teen prostitution and sexual slavery, both alas, alive and well throughout the world. These books crawl into your skin. They do not let you look away. Because it would be way too easy to look away. And then we must act.

In my city, some friends of mine have started acting. The recession, they say, usually results in a spike in exploited kids, so they are attacking the problem by creating safe and loving spaces for kids who need a way out. An organization called the Source is raising money to buy a building to use as a transitional housing for young adults who have been victims of sex trafficking. They're doing good work and important work and I'm as proud as can be of all of them.

The point is this: books have tremendous power to give voice to those who have been silenced and to give hope to those whose spirits are crushed. Books force us to experience the pain of those at the margins of our culture. They force us to see that which we'd rather be blind to. I think that's the reason why small groups of small-minded individuals seek to ban books - not to protect children, but to protect themselves.

But here's my question for you, dear readers: What book inspired your "road to Damascus" moment? What book forced the blinders off, pulled the scales from your eyes, and made you realize that you needed to stand up, you needed to take action, and you needed to shout as if your life depended on it:

This must not happen!

And again, louder.



E. Kristin Anderson said...

Great post, Kelly. It hurts my heart that this is the truth for so many kids. I'd add to your list FREAKS & REVELATIONS by Davida Wills Hurwin and TRICKS by Ellen Hopkins. Both books made my stomach churn. And they should.

The THIS MUST NOT HAPPEN! book/moment came for me pretty early. In sixth grade I read Zlata's Diary, the actual diary of a Bosnian girl during the war. It was so hard to read, and yet enthralling. Parts of the diary were sweet and typical of a young girl -- parts were terrifying. I'll never, ever forget reading that, feeling inspired by Zlata, feeling like a global citizen for the first time. I think all kids should read this book, and books like it, because, as you said, it's too easy to ignore things that aren't pretty, but when we force ourselves to look outside our bubble, it makes a difference in the world.


Anonymous said...

YES, YES, YES on TRICKS. That book was amazing. I've never read Freaks and Revelations, but I'm putting it on my library list instantly.

Also, Zlata's Diary was a stunning read.

Also, I remember reading The Grapes of Wrath as a kid (also a heavily banned book) and being exposed for the first time to the concept of poverty being *systemic*, and, what's worse, kept in place by very cynical people who benefited by standing on the backs of those who have nothing. It was as though the world had shifted under my feet, you know? Also, being a kid in the eighties, it meant that I suddenly had the tools to crack open the rhetoric that I was hearing in the news and from politicians about "lazy poor people" and let the truth come blazing through.

Again, I think this is why books get banned. Because there are folks who don't want to see the things that make them uncomfortable, don't want to change their position on....well, any damn thing, and they don't want that itchy moral voice in the back of their brains to wake up and make them get off their bums and take action.

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