Banned Books Week Review Excitement!

Goodness, there are a lot of banned books, and many of those books are awfully good: funny and sly and charming, or sad, or clever, or just wondrous. Being a teenager is dreary enough, when everyone else is in charge of your life, without being deprived of those doorways into other worlds where you can go and wander about for a little while. As someone who considers a great many people who are not technically real to be among her most boon companions, and likes some books better than most people, it is quite unthinkable to imagine any of those books taken away from us. The ABFFE list of Banned and Challenged Books is pretty much a representative sampling of the books we would invite to the birthday party of our teenage life (WHAT DO YOU MEAN that metaphor does not make sense), and trying to pick our favorite among them is like a more maternally inclined person selecting the most beloved of her offspring. And yet there is a book on that list that is for us--well, it's not our favorite, to be sure. But it is... special.

Go Ask Alice is not, by an critical standard, a good book. To be honest, it is startling to us that anyone still reads Go Ask Alice, let alone that anyone goes to the trouble to ban it. Its narrative is implausible, to say the least; its "teen voice" overwrought at best and nearly unreadable for the most part; its heroine insipid enough to make poor old Bella S. look like a fine strapping young lass you'd like to have on your side in the event of a catastrophe. Although as far as we know the book's authorship has never been definitively established, it is widely assumed to be the work of its "editor," Beatrice Sparks. A therapist and Mormon youth counselor, Sparks made a career for herself out of penning "anonymous" teen diaries--including It Happened to Nancy ("it" being AIDS), Jay's Journal * (descent into drug use, Satanism, animal sacrifice, suicide), Annie's Baby: the Diary of Anonymous, a Pregnant Teenager (descent into unplanned pregnancy), and Kim: Empty Inside (descent into drug use, eating disorders). Only Jay's Journal came close to the tremendous success of Go Ask Alice, which has been in print for forty years and has sold over four million copies. It's a favorite of book-banners as well: among the 100 most frequently challenged books of the 1990s, #8 on the most challenged list in 2001, and #6 in 2003, according to its Wikipedia entry. Which is, of course, sort of ironic, since the book's titillating narrative arc is like something straight out of a D.A.R.E. pamphlet: Start with acid, end in death (with stops on the way at Sexual Assault, Homelessness, and Like Totally Bad Skin Also Nice Boys Won't Like You).

Go Ask Alice has sported the same cover since 1971: a girl (presumably the titular Alice, although the narrator herself is never named as such) gazing solemnly out from darkness so that most of her face is obscured, and the ominous slogan "You Can't Ask Alice Anything Anymore," a phrase which still gives the ten-year-old in us a little frisson of delight. You can't ask Alice anything any more, of course, because she is dead, after a short and tragic (if highly improbable) descent from LSD-spiked soda** at a party to prostitution, heroin addiction, and moving to (THE HORROR) Berkeley. In between shooting dope and fornicating wantonly, Alice finds the time to exhaustively document the perils of various drugs as well as the many bad trips she has on them, occasionally going so far as to list side effects with a tenacity worthy of a medical student. (The fact that LSD is not remotely addictive does not, apparently, figure into poor Alice's downward trajectory.)

After a heroic effort, Alice gets her life back together, quits drugs, and returns to the forgiving bosom of her parents--but those darn junkie friends just won't let her alone! Determined to bring her back into the fold of depravity, they leave acid-spiked chocolates (!!!) in the home where she is babysitting; a subsequently deranged Alice is thrown into an insane asylum (!!!!) before finally moving with her family to a new town. There we leave her, at last happy and drug-free, only to be informed by an ominous postscript (one can practically hear it being read aloud in the voice of that guy who does voiceovers for movie previews) that Alice dies of an overdose three weeks after the diary's termination. "Was it an accidental overdose? A premeditated overdose? No one knows, and in some ways that question isn't important. What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of thousands of drug deaths that year."

We were probably around ten when we first read Go Ask Alice, and it seemed then an astonishing peek into the glamorous mysteries of adolescence, a perilous state of greasy hair, fretting about one's weight, and constantly fending off depravity in the form of sophisticated older peers administering hallucinogens and demanding one sell narcotics to schoolchildren. We have never lost our passion for novelizations of a dissolute girlhood, though we've since moved on to significantly more literary fare. Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl is one of the bleakest and most brilliant books ever written about growing up female; Blake Nelson's Girl, a novel with which we have been obsessed since its original serialization in Sassy magazine, perfectly captures the particular moment of our own adolescence; Amanda Boyden's Pretty Little Dirty is a fast and furious drug-fueled joyride through 80s hardcore punk--we could make you a whole list of Rejectionist-beloved novels about teenage girls gone awry.

But Go Ask Alice was the first, and while it is certainly the most awful, it holds a special place in our heart. We are clearly not alone in our fascination. The degree to which female adolescence is both fetishized and and criminalized in its pages is a rather sad commentary on our culture. Nothing is more terrifying than the image of the Good White Girl Gone Astray, the girl of wasted potential, besmirched by drugs and sex; and though in other novels we've since read and loved, that narrative is undermined or rewritten, in Go Ask Alice the only imaginable fate for such a ruined creature is death. Where else could she go? Everyone already knows all her secrets. Banning Go Ask Alice seems a strange and confusing move. She's punished enough by the book's own structure (let alone its prose), her story meant to serve as a lesson for other young ladies who might be tempted by the twin demons of narcotics and hanky-panky. Stray to the dark side and end up dead, girls: there's no future in living fast and loose. Or even, for that matter, in having a good time until you're grown up enough to leave.

* Jay's Journal is in fact based on excerpts from the diary of a real person, Alden Barrett. Barrett was a sixteen-year-old from Pleasant Grove, Utah who committed suicide in 1971; his parents sought out Sparks to publicize his story in the hopes it might prevent other teens from killing themselves. Sparks, unbeknownst to the Barretts, used only a handful of Barrett's actual diary entries and made up the rest, including Jay's forays into Satanism and animal sacrifice, which were entirely the work of her imagination.

**Okay, granted, we were not a teenager in 1971; but has this ever actually happened to anyone, in, like, the history of teenagerhood?

Don't forget to link your banned book review on Tahereh's master list! Steph Su is hosting a Banned Books Week Challenge as well, and super-teen Ari of Reading in Color has her own Banned Books Week project going on. Link away in the comments if you wish to alert us to other pleasing Banned Books Week activities.