Deep breath…

I’ve been avoiding the topic all day, but it would feel too strange not to post about it here.  (at the very least because my mom will want the links. Hey, Mom!)

So I have to share that I got a very upsetting review this week. From a reader I have, until now, valued. This blogger and I share a lot of favorite books, and she’s smart and eloquent, and I’ve felt honored by her appreciation for my writing.  But she hit a wall she couldn’t see over when, while  reading PENNY DREADFUL, she met two women named Willa and Jenny.  She wrote this about the experience:

The only problem is, being a lesbian is not normal. It’s not something that “just happens” to people, like being poor or brave. In fact, when you look through Biblical glasses, homosexuality is, well, an abomination.

Characters like Willa and Jenny, however, with their happy little family, show elementary-age readers that Christian beliefs are hateful and silly. Add these characters to the full-blown assault of politically-correct propaganda that is molding America’s children.

I spent last night, and most of today, trying to process this review. I was really really sad, and shocked.  Not because I didn’t know that people would respond this way. But because I wasn’t expecting people I liked to respond this way. I was just… baffled.

I’ve avoided posting a comment, not because I’m uncomfortable with conflict (quite the opposite), but because I didn’t want to get tangled up in any vitriol before I knew how I felt. I didn’t want to fan the flames of a comment-war, and I didn’t want to have to own other people’s responses (even those in my defense).  Though I appreciate the emotions people are sharing, and I am grateful for the fact that, by and large, people are keeping it civil. I appreciated that Roger Sutton blogged about the situation, and I continue to appreciate all the warm notes from friends via Twitter, Facebook, and email. Penny thanks you all!

Now I want to say a few (somewhat unrelated) things. They are the things swirling in my head. They may shift, but I know I can claim them:

1. I will support, always, the right of any reader to  NOT read a book.  No book is right for every reader, and no reader can love every book.    I will also support the right of any reviewer (blogger, writer, etc) to criticize any book. On any grounds, really, so long as the reviewer is honest. A reviewer doesn’t have to be right, or smart, or even fair.  They just can’t make things up.

2. That said, I think it’s sad that (as was pointed out by many) the blogger in question made a leap from being  uncomfortable with homosexuality to thinking that a benign/happy depiction of a gay family is a threat to  Christian principles. It isn’t a threat. It really never is– not even to this flavor of   “Christian” principles.  A free flow of information and ideas will serve to test and strengthen any convictions worth having.  These sorts of knee jerk reactions are made out of fear, not conviction. I hope she’ll finish the book, and see how she feels at the end.  Some of the most powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had were with books I hated.

3. I think it’s sad that in the comments that followed the post, the blogger began to sound less mindful, less thoughtful, increasingly defensive.  Automatic. More fearful. Midway through the comments she  expands her  fear of books about happy gay families.  “It’s exchanging the truth of God for a lie, whether the family practices homosexuality, worships Allah and Mohamed, or declines to believe that the historical Jesus is God’s Son.” I can’t even begin to tackle that one.  If any non-”Christian” sympathetic character is a problem for a reader, the conversation is finished.  I mean, Anne Frank?  Trump card. Game over.

4. Related: the Levy Family, in my book Any Which Wall, happens to be Jewish.  I wonder if knowing that will change the blogger’s experience of the book.

5. I am refraining from making a list of all the famous gay authors of children’s books.  Maybe I shouldn’t refrain.

6.  In a comment below his own post, Roger says “I also think she could have constructed a sparky kind of post had she taken on the topic of authors inserting what sometimes seem to be gratuitous ads for their pet causes (or favorite books; this happens frequently) in ways that I think pull the reader away from the story. I read the Snyder a while ago and don’t remember if I felt this way or not…” To that question I’d like to offer that I don’t think Willa and Jenny are gratuitous. I didn’t toss them in to be politically correct. Their role is minor to the plot, but they are part of the project at hand. One thing I wanted to do with this book was to show the deep diversity of a tiny community. I wanted to showcase that small towns can be as diverse as large cities– in some cases more so because in a small town, everyone has to learn to actually live together.  I wanted to show the strengths of that way of living, and I wanted to highlight the profound effect small town community can have on a child. I wanted the new world of Thrush Junction to have a big effect on Penny, and I wanted all of the different sorts of characters (old and young, hearing and deaf, rich and poor, gay and straight, artistic and professional,  uptight and bohemian–and so on and so on) to get sort of thrown together, like family. So there’s that. Not a defense, but an explanation. I stand behind my inclusion of  Willa and Jenny in the book. Not just politically, but creatively.

7. In her last comment, the blogger adds, “My comments are not about my opinion. They come straight from the Bible, the only standard of truth and morality that has ever existed.” This is not something I can argue with. Until I saw that line, I’d been planning to write a real letter to the blogger, something for her eyes only. I thought maybe we could have a conversation about all of this, she and I. But that line’s a show stopper. If she truly believes this to be the case, that the Christian Bible is the “only standard of truth and morality that has ever existed,” I don’t know how to engage her.

8. I don’t think “being brave” just “happens to people.”

32 Responses to “Deep breath…”

  1. Julie Booth-Lamirand Says:

    You know, this will probably come across as trite, but the only answer I have for this person and her views is that simplest of Bible verses, “Jesus wept.” I’m not terribly religious, and I have my own unique and perhaps quite odd beliefs, but I was raised in a Christian church, and I know the Bible, and these folks saying that everyone else is wrong and using the very words, “God hates” really piss me off! From everything I’ve ever learned about Jesus, his teachings and what true Christianity is supposed to be, I can’t help but think that Jesus would be completely happy with any loving home for children, and I don’t think Jesus would really care if it was a gay home, Christian home, Jewish home (much like his own), Muslim home or atheist home. She’s a sad person as are all the people who have co-opted Jesus’ word into some judgmental drivel that they think allows them to discriminate. She’s exactly who the bumper sticker, “Jesus, save me from your followers!” was made to address. If she’s a “true Christian” she ought to be ashamed.

  2. Craig Says:

    Ahem. She says “Characters like Willa and Jenny, however, with their happy little family, show elementary-age readers that Christian beliefs are hateful and silly.” Couldn’t have said it better myself! Looks like you’ve succeeded in showing without telling. Congratulations.

  3. Tracy Lucas Says:

    Wow. Just wow.

    Sometimes I cannot believe that people that close-minded still *actually* exist.

    Thank you for not being one of them.

  4. Collin Says:

    It’s unfortunate when a friend and someone admire reveals their inner bigotry. The argument that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle is tired and often used by right-wing Christians to belittle and demean the LGBT community. The real abomination is that it’s 2010 and we still have narrow-minded, homophobes. It’s this kind of extreme language and stance that fosters bullying, suicide and intolerance. You have to look no further than those comments on Willa and Jenny’s relationship to know where children learn not only to bully but to act out in fear. Your friend might call herself a “Christian” but she’s far from it.

  5. Rosanne Says:

    Oh Laurel…ouch. You’ve been very thoughtful and brave in your response here, but still…ouch! I should send you flowers–or ginger plum jam–or one quiet day with just your family and no outside world to worry about. But given the circumstances, here are some things that came to mind as I was reading your post–straight from the Bible

    God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God and God abides in them.

    The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abiding in compassion.

    This is what the Lord asks of you; this is all that God requires: that you act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.

    And here’s one, not from the Bible, but from a man who knew the scriptures well, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

    And here you are, bending the arc–a painful enterprise but a noble one.
    Thank you.

  6. Amie Kaufman Says:

    How distressing, to receive a review like this from somebody you really thought highly of. I’m so impressed by the way you’ve responded to this. I work as a professional mediator and I can tell you how rare it is for somebody in your position to step back, consider what’s happened, then respond in a thoughtful, dignified manner. It’s a horrible feeling to have that I-don’t-know-you-at-all realisation.

    I’m counting down the days to my copy of Penny Dreadful. My local bookstore hasn’t been able to coax the publisher to ship from overseas for them, so I’ve attacked the problem via the internet. She should be winging her way towards me soon!

  7. Mom Says:

    So your mom is very very proud of you, of course. For writing the book, for knowing that Willa and Jenny live in Thrush Junction, and for the balance in your response above.

  8. Kurtis Says:

    You reminded me to scratch my head over that sentence about bravery. Nice response through and through.

  9. Diana Peterfreund Says:

    It does not surprise me that you got a reaction like this, even from a blogger you’d liked before. It does surprise me that the stance that characters that do not live in a way that is in keeping with the beliefs of a certain segment of the population (I’m not going to say Christian because there are many Christians who have no problem with those characters’ lifestyle) is teaching children that Christian beliefs are bad. As you said, Anne Frank, trump card.

  10. Alyson Says:

    I will second your mom…your response above is perfect. And yes, there is no way to fully engage someone in honest, open discussion if they have already closed their mind. Know that you have support behind you.

  11. Amber Says:

    I agree that such a response comes from a place of fear and judgment that was most likely instilled at such an early age as to be near impossible to break through. It is sad to me that people still allow themselves to live in such small worlds full of non-acceptance. No matter what religion you choose to believe in, the greater picture as a whole most commonly states the basic belief that God = Love. Allowing oneself to be filled with fear and hate would seem to be to be the antithesis of this basic, and to me, truest of all values. Taking the Bible verbatim would mean that even eating meat is a sin as great as murder. After all, no one sin is greater than any other, n’est pas? However, even for “Christian” principles, did Christ not preach that we should love, accept, and cast not the first stone?

  12. Linell Says:

    If sexuality is a choice, ask the blogger when she ‘chose’ to be straight.

  13. Julianna Baggott Says:

    First, let’s point out that Laurel has been a dedicated voice in the ongoing discussion of faith and inter-faith dialogue. She is a voice I deeply admire — the best kind that gives rise to other voices and discussions. If the blogger had been more open to a discourse on faith — not shut down — she’d have found a wonderful starting place with Laurel. (Maybe this can still happen.)

    I reminded the blogger that the Bible is pro-slavery — clearly and with specific guidelines — and was used in the arguments against the abolition of slavery. Exodus 21:20-21 — that’s a pretty clear one. So, is that good? Does that work for all of us? Should we apply this law of owning others widely? (I’m less of a starting place.)

  14. Kai Says:

    Alyson, thanks for that. I’ve just had an email from my mother saying that gay sex gives you aids, that she’s disappointed in me and that she hopes I come to my senses soon. We’ve already discussed our disparate beliefs and I’m increasingly giving up. Even though it wasn’t directed at me or my particular case, your statement above has helped me a lot today in trying to find peace.

    Laurel, thank you for writing the book and making it as diverse as you have done. I’ve only come across you and your book today, but I’m about to look into ordering a copy. (My son is only 27 weeks old, but it sounds like the sort of childrens’ book I want him growing up reading.)

  15. Catherine Ryan Hyde Says:

    An acquaintance of mine told me, “You can’t reason someone out of a belief that they didn’t reason their way into.” Unfortunately true. Though I left one civil comment for the blogger, I’m sure it’s a waste of time to try to convince her of anything. As do most in her position, she will simply say she is being vilified for her beliefs. But I disagree that a person who calls others “an abomination” (for what they truly are inside) is simply exercising an opinion. This is a real and powerful harm done to others.

    Now I’m on edge waiting to see what will happen next with my transgender YA novel (Jumpstart the World). It has no sex, and is all about friendship and love, but it portrays gay and transgender people in a positive light. Not that I didn’t know it might face attack. But this has made it feel very real.

    You have handled this with great dignity, which I’ll use as a template if needed.

  16. Randi Cecchine Says:


    I admire you.

    I’m going to think about this for the rest of the day. It is a perfect illustration of where we are as a culture…

    All my best,

    Randi Cecchine

  17. david e Says:

    laurel, it’s thing like this that make my head explode with words that i can’t quite wrangle into intelligible thoughts. perhaps because the situation is so absurd to begin with.

    in the end, if someone is that concerned with “exchanging god’s truth for a lie” then why read fiction at all? why read anything but the bible? isn’t every work of fiction a lie by her definition?

    i have noted that the blogger in question who wrote the review aspires to write for children herself. i sincerely hope she can find a way to grow out of her current bigotry and intolerance.

    kudos to you, laurel. you are much more measured than i think i might have been if i’d found myself in your shoes.

  18. Noelle Says:

    I’ve been tossing and turning about this, too. And I think the hardest part for me (as a politically and theologically liberal person and a Christian cleric) is that blog posts like hers serve to widen the great fictional chasm between “Christians” and “thinking people”. Because of opinions like hers, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with this hateful and misguided belief system if I didn’t already know that hers is not only NOT the dominant voice of Christianity, it isn’t a primary one or even an important one. Unfortunately, it is a loud one. I, too, am proud of your friends for keeping this unfortunate conversation civil (and, as always, I’m proud to be counted among your friends!).

  19. Charlotte Says:

    Hi Laurel,

    I was pretty unhappy with Noel’s attack on the lesbian couple, but what really upset me more, and is continuing to upset me something fierce, is what you bring up in your third point. In the comment you mention, she expresses her objection to “sweetly-portrayed Muslim families” in books “because such work would also train children to dismiss Christian objections to Islam as silly and hateful.”

    It must makes me want to cry/spit tacks/have more children so that I can can “train” them to think otherwise (well, not really the last one, but still).

    (I’m looking forward to reading Penny lots, by the way!)

  20. laurel Says:

    Thanks to everyone. Really, thank you. I’m fine, totally fine, but I appreciate all your lovely words and thoughts and support. It’s funny, for me, that I’m at one end of this tug-of-war. Given that I’m straight, and married, in a super-traditionally gendered household. I’m a SAHM, for crying out loud, and I get the benefits of marriage (read: health care) and have never had to struggle to have kids, or or keep them, even to practice my own faith as I wish, or to write the books I want. I’m SOOOOOOO lucky and things have been so easy for me, in this regard. Ironic that I ended up at the other end of the rope in this case. Laughable, even. I’m not vulnerable on this issue, because (I guess) it isn’t even my issue. So the arrows don’t feel like arrows. They feel like bubbles, popping against my skin. My heart just aches for the people who face this crap every day, and feel it in a deeper way.

    (and Noelle, I just want to say I have such respect for you, and the work you do. Not an easy task before you– convincing the world of people “like us” that bigoted voices don’t speak for the faith community. But you’re a blazing example of that. Light unto the nations, and so forth.)

  21. Anjali Says:

    Hatred has many excuses, one of them is religion. I tried to read her entire critique, but really it just makes me sick.

    Clearly, we need more gay families in literature. It’s the only way to make it right.

  22. Doret Says:

    That review made me sad. If the reviewer was older, I would be angry. But since she’s a teenager I am simply very very sad, because I know she hasn’t been exposed to different opinions or ways of life.

    If anyone ever wonders why diversity, in children’s literature is important be it race, culture, religion or sexual orientation is important, they should read that review.

    Thankfully more authors are including different types of families in their middle grade novels, without making a big deal about it. And that’s how it should be.

    I decided not to comment over there, I don’t see the point. The reviewer probably won’t be open to listening because many ( not all) comments are angry. Anger and fear only makes people push back harder.

  23. Robyn Hawk Says:

    BRAVA!!! eloquently stated – I only wish that I were as level headed on the issue (yep – I tend to freak out ;-p) thank you!


  24. Kaethe Says:

    Laurel, my heart bleeds for so many people when I read about hate like this. I commend you for responding so well. I hope you realize what a blessing this book is to so many.

  25. Laura Ruby Says:

    I just stumbled onto this via a Facebook link and I have to confess that my first thought upon reading the review was a patronizing and dismissive: “Oh, she’s just a dumb kid.” A thought made all the more awful because I write for kids mostly because I felt so patronized and dismissed when I was young and full of occasionally dumb opinions.

    But of course this girl isn’t dumb at all, and perhaps not even that young, which is why the review is so bloody sad, so disheartening and baffling. And being young is no excuse for her insistence that gay, Muslim and Jewish characters — or anything that doesn’t square with her narrow definition of all-that’s-good-and-right-in-the-universe — are a personal assault on her beliefs. Isn’t that one of the reasons we read? To experience other worlds, other lives, other beliefs?

    So, here I am, back to, “Oh, she’s just a dumb kid.” Because I’m hoping that she is, and that there’s a chance she’ll read more, think more, get out in the world and meet more people, and maybe grow out of it.

    I’m sorry you had to lose some sleep, Laurel.

  26. the rejectionist Says:

    Brava, lady.

  27. Natasha Says:

    we are praying for her.
    another “happy little family”
    ps thank you.

  28. lael Says:

    Thank you for writing a book that by representing the world in its full, rich diversity will help all your readers feel more at home in the world and in their own skin. Way to go!!!

  29. Sarah Laurenson Says:

    Not only slavery, Julianna, but polygamy and a host of other things that we no longer accept as being, well, acceptable. In the comments on Roger’s blog, I linked to this op-ed piece on CNN. It talks about abominations in the Bible.

    There is a mix of things that I think we’re seeing here. One of them is the backlash effect of the gay rights movement and how far we’ve come.

    The other is a bit more complicated. I think the anonymity of the internet has fostered an atmosphere of hatred and this is working its way into every day encounters. And it doesn’t help that we’ve been steeped in hatred and fear in political talks and ads for many years now – not to mention the fear mongering of the regular news. Add in the greater amount of stress that is being heaped on children to be better than their peers and we have this not so lovely spiral into societal self-destruction.

    Parents are, and have been in more recent times, pushing their very young children to do more, be more, learn more. It’s now acceptable to have a child reading before she starts school. Occupational therapists are being hired to advance small motor skills beyond what they should be so he can get into the best pre-school. Competition is high. Public education is being dismissed as not good enough.

    So take young children, push them beyond their limits, pit them against their peers, give them anonymity on an international scale to say whatever pops into their heads, and don’t teach them manners.

    It’s no wonder to me that she has become defensive. I truly believe people like her are frightened and use such an extreme POV as a wall to hide behind. It’s a pity that such fear exists and that the only way they see to protect themselves is to spew hatred.

    Sorry for the long rant.

  30. Chuck Warren Says:

    I haven’t read Penny Dreadful. But I will now. Thank you for writing the book. Thank you for your gracious and intelligent reply to the reviewer. Thank you for being a voice for sanity in what is too often an insane world.

  31. Julia Says:

    Ms. Snyder: Even if you disagree with the review, it would be nice to hear you say that many of the comments people left on the reviewer’s site were just nasty and completely out of line. The reviewer stated her opinions and you disagreed with her. Neither one of you was particularly mean about it, but the commenters on her site, especially, were over the top with vitriol. I’d hope that such nastiness would not be acceptable to you and that you’d say that.

  32. laurel Says:

    Dear Julia,

    I’ve avoided posting comments on Noel’s site, from the moment all this began. I did not attack her in her comments, but expressed sadness/frustration/confusion here, on my own turf. I tried very hard not to react out of my own initial hurt/upset at her response to the book, but to wait and respond in a careful way, as generously as I could.

    I am, of course, not happy to see anyone insulted or criticized publicly. But this is the nature of blogging, and when anyone enters such a discourse, they know what may follow. And certainly (as I have seen elsewhere) Noel has her own community, and they are supporting her on their own blogs, in another conversation that I am resisting the impulse to enter for the same reasons.

    I have personally– for my own views on lots of things– encountered Nazi sentiment, personal attacks on my politics as a left-leaning Democrat, and attempts at conversion/mission by both evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews. I believe everyone has a right to voice their feelings in a public space. Noel could have shut down comments long ago, but chose not to. She has held to her position, and I respect her right to do that.

    If Noel and I have things to say to one another, we will do so. We are both adults, and writers, and professionals, and I think we both understand the blogosphere the same way. I don’t think it is my place to take other people to task for being upset by something they read, something Noel chose to publish. That is their right, and I’m not in a position to judge them for reacting.

    Respectfully yours, Laurel

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