Elana K. Arnold’s “Damsel“ (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2018) is among the 22 books so far this school year that a trio of individuals have sought to ban from high school library shelves. A Flagler Palm Coast High School committee of school faculty and community members was to meet this week to decide whether to retain or ban the book. The meeting, postponed to an undetermined date next month, will be open to the public but not to public participation. The following review by Dr. Stephen Playe and Ann Playe is presented as a guide.
With Damsel, Elana K. Arnold invites us to think long and hard about complex topics that are important to young adults: the ruthlessness of a male dominated society, the arbitrariness of hierarchies, and the choice between safety, even submission, and individual freedom, among others.
We highly recommend this book for parents. Read it. Think about it. Talk about it with other parents. The process will enable you to better help your young adult children navigate an imperfect world.
But we do not recommend high school age folks read it.
First, the artful slow build of the story may seem tedious for young adult readers. More importantly, many of the key developments are presented in graphic, crude and violent scenes. The shock of the delivery could preclude appropriate reflection on the issues.
This is not necessarily criticism of the book. It is fantasy, essentially a fairy tale. Fairy tales traditionally have license to be graphic, scary or even creepy in their portrayal of good and evil. We read to our little Hansels and Gretles about the culinary plans the witch had for them. Ugh. The kind woodsman is sent into the woods with the instructions to return with Snow White’s heart (literally).
And for that matter, the happy ending of Snow White is enabled by a non-consensual kiss. And step-mothers, don’t get us started, are universally treated brutally in the fairy tale genre.
So this fairy tale, true to form, brings the story to a close with a graphic, fantastical, violently sexual explanation of the mystery of the story and polishes it (and the reader) off with an almost indescribable act of vengeance. Good, actually very good, for parents to read. But not for young adults.
Before concluding this review, we feel obliged to comment on the specific objections that led to the extensive evaluation of the book to remain in school libraries. With due respect, we do not feel the objectors carefully read the book. Otherwise, in the specific pages they objected to they would have included “the hardiness of Pawlin’s erection,” or the boy who retorted, yeah but “I know shite about your sister’s titties.”
It would seem the objections are based on a computerized search for specific words, like “breast.” The overwhelming evidence that the objectors did not read the book is that there is no objection raised to the final pages of the book when the original sin of the story, the bizarre, sickening, rape-equivalent violation, is described. What?
We are not sorry that an objection was raised because we agree that it is not appropriate for young adults even though it is a valuable book for parents. To the objectors who seem to have lied when they implied they had personally, carefully read the book, we say we are sorry that we cannot believe what you say in the future.
The following questions in bold are reproduced here exactly as they appear on the Flagler County school district’s questionnaire for media advisory committees taking up book challenges. Committees fill in their answers as they reach a decision on each challenged book, after a committee discussion. The answers below are provided as an amendment to the preceding review and are of course only the reviewers’ own–in this case, Stephen and Ann Playe. Committees may reach vastly different conclusions.
Author or editor: Elana K. Hopkins
Publisher: Balzer+Bray, An imprint of HarperCollins
Basis of objection: “Materials contain pornography, Materials are not appropriate for the age of student.”
- What do you feel is the purpose, theme or message of the material?
This book can help the reader think deeply about societal issues including patriarchy, freedom, and the ability of young women to make their own decisions.
- Is the purpose accomplished?
- This work is suitable for which grades?
- Are concepts presented in a manner appropriate to the ability and maturity of your suggested audience? Yes or no answer only.
- Does the material stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, and/or ethical values?
Not factual knowledge in that this is a fantasy. It raises many ethical questions.
- Does the material enable students to make intelligent decisions in their daily lives?
We feel that young adults will benefit from their parents reading this unique book.
- Does the material offer an opportunity to understand more of the human condition?
Yes, especially the balance between safety and personal expression.
- Does the material offer an opportunity to better understand and appreciate the aspirations, achievements and history of diverse groups of people?
- Is the content timely and/or relevant? Yes or no. Does this work have literary merit? Yes, no, not applicable. Then explain.
Yes and yes.
The topics of dominance, abuse, freedom, coercion, and individual freedom of expression are both timely and relevant. The work is an interesting literary construct that builds chillingly to a dramatic conclusion. The style and the events are both unsettling and thought provoking.
- If presented as factual, is the content accurate? Is the factual information in the book current and accurate as far as you are aware? Yes or no, then explain.
- Does the material take in consideration the students’ varied interests, abilities and/or maturity levels?
- Does the material help to provide representation for various religious, ethnic, and/or cultural groups and the contribution of these groups to American heritage?
- Does this material provide representation to students based on race, color, religion, sex, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, political or religious beliefs, national or ethnic origin, or genetic information?
- Could this work be considered offensive in any way? Note yes or no next to the following categories:
Religion or portrayal of religious practices/ideologies: No.
Sexual behavior: Yes.
Manner characters are presented: No.
Prurient behavior: Yes.
Portrayal of any societal groups: No.
Aberrant behavior: Yes.
Political positions: No.
- Are questionable or offensive elements of this work an important part of the overall development of the story or text?
Yes. The very topics that are important to this book and the manner in which it is presented is more appropriate for parents, not young adults.
- Do you feel the material has a purpose for a school library collection? Yes or no.
- Comments specific to the objection:
We do not find this work pornographic. We do not, however, feel that it is appropriate for students as young as 9th grade.
- Additional comments:
Recommendation (retain, remove, other), with an explanation of your overall reasoning for the recommendation:
We suggest this be encouraged reading for parents. There may well also be high school students who could appreciate and benefit from reading this book. In a perfect world, access could conform with that: informed decisions on an individual basis. Interestingly, that’s what Damsel is about.