ANSWER TO THE PAGES
By David Levithan
When a child comes to you with big questions about the world, it’s beautiful to be able to say, “Here’s a book that helps us understand.” “Answers in the Pages,” by David Levithan, is one such book for children struggling with why books are being challenged and what they can do about it.
The novel consists of three intertwined narratives: The main story is told in the first person by Donovan, a fifth-grader whose mother has launched a campaign to challenge a book he has been assigned in English class: an action-adventure novel with possibly gay protagonists. The second thread gives us a glimpse of “The Adventurers”, the delightfully cheesy invented novel that Donovan’s mother is against. The last thread, told in the third person, is a sweet story of first love between two boys (at 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 up in support of their teacher, the book, and their right to read it. They are going to be a part of the solution and inject themselves into a conversation that some of the adults in their lives would rather keep from them.
Donovan is at first confused by the question, then torn between supporting the book and supporting his family. There is no ambiguity in his pro-book stance, but it’s hard to say his parents are against. Ultimately for Donovan, it’s a big part of creating change.
The novel’s resolution is neat in a way that endings in the real world rarely are, but it provides a good introduction to the targeted age group for the topic of censorship.
Levithan goes a fine line here. The characters in his novel, which is against “The Adventurers,” do not express many openly homophobic ideas; Donovan’s mother says the book is “inappropriate”, but never explains to him why she thinks so. While this feels right – parents trying to prevent their children from learning about homosexuality at school are not inclined to explain it to them at home in the process – it weakens the core tension of the narrative.
Donovan derives his parents’ homophobia from classmates whose parents are less afraid of identity conversations, which strikes an authentic tone. Children are going to learn all the complex truths of the world in one way or another.
Despite the title, readers are likely to end “Answers on the pages” with big questions and bigger emotions, which is the best possible result. It is an accessible, engaging look at the insidious and worrying practice of challenging books that reflect diversity. And it is likely to promote much-needed conversations between caregivers and children. My hope is that it finds its way to the school library shelves and stays there (except of course when it is checked out by a young reader).
Challenging a book on what it means to challenge a book would take this conversation to a surreal level. Yet Levithan’s novel is in itself all that Donovan’s mother and people like her object to: a celebration of quiet queerness, of self-discovery, of the ally, of the way books can open our world and set in motion adventures both real and imagined. , by the fact that whether we love our friends of the same sex as friends or more than friends, we deserve to have our stories told and read and shared.