Book banning feels like something out of a Ray Bradbury novel, but it just happened in a real-life, modern-day democracy. This week, New Zealand outlawed the award-winning young adult novel Into the River by author Ted Dawe nationwide for its so-called offensive content.
Into the River is the first book in 22 years to be banned in the country. Making the government ban more confusing is the fact that the book is considered “young adult” (how bad can it be?) and took home the top prize at the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards only makes the ruling stranger. Why the sudden revolt?
New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board forbid the sale or distribution of the novel in response to pressure from Family First, an advocacy group whose social ideals align with conservatives here in the U.S.—and who initially made it their mission to keep it out of the teens, but somehow succeeded in banning it for adults, too.
Family First cited explicit language (the F-word and C-word), sex, drug use, and graphic violence, which they argued could corrupt young adults. And yet, while most of the press coverage reiterated those vices, few have shared specifics about the so-called dangerous material. What does the book say that makes it such a threat?
We read the book, found the passages presumably causing all the trouble, and have listed eight of the most representative ones below—so you can decide for yourself whether the book is blasphemous.
First, some background. The book is a coming-of-age story about a teen boy named Devon who is thrust from his small, rural town in New Zealand into an elite Auckland boarding school. That’s really all you need to know—he’s a high school boy who is totally out of his element and faces the challenges many young adults face, including sex, bullying, slipping grades, and first-time drug use.
While the novel definitely contains explicit content—which explains why it carries a warning label saying so—in a country that values freedom of expression, does it really deserve to be banned? You be the judge. Needless to say, spoilers abound.
Seniors at Devon’s all-boys boarding school are known for bullying younger kids. In one scene, they attack Devon’s friend and roommate, Mitch:
Two of them pulled the blankets over Mitch and held them down tight. The other one began to thrash him with a hockey stick. Hard blows, like chopping wood … There was no let-up. Devon longed to do something but couldn’t move. He lay immobile, frozen with fear, while his friend was being beaten not two metres away.
Back at boarding school Devon’s friend Steph, another roommate, sneaks in some pot:
At last, Steph revealed the reason he had brought them there. He had a joint. “Where’d you get it?” Wingnut asked in a hushed whisper.
On a school break Devon meets up with a 16-year-old girl named Tania, a childhood friend’s cousin who just had a baby:
Devon was sure that she would put on the T-shirt that lay ready on the back of a chair but she didn’t. Her breasts were large and she seemed proud to show them off … There was something crazy and fearless about her.
Devon and Tania embark on a sexual relationship—Devon’s first:
Tania had Devon’s jeans off much faster than he managed to clear the hooks on her bra. The urgency now bordered on panic. Then she had his cock in her wet hand. He gasped. The next thing was he felt a fluttering convulsion and came immediately, draping the wall of the bathroom with a ribbon of sperm.
Devon’s roommate Steph begins a relationship with their male choir teacher, Willie. He reveals his secret to Devon:
‘During the holidays I found a friend. A secret friend … not because he was a he, but because he was much older than me, one of my father’s colleagues.’
That same choir teacher asks the two boys to go swimming with him, naked. Devon is uncomfortable:
‘We haven’t got any togs,’ said Devon, more thinking out loud than actually saying anything. ‘Togs? What are they? Don’t need togs man, we can go to Ladies’ Bay, swim in the nick.’ Willie searched around and came back with a couple of stained old towels.
Willie also likes to take naked photos of teen boys, including Steph, and wants Devon to join:
‘I think since we have Devon here we should do a few more photos. I’m looking to expand my portfolio.’ He fumbled about in the shelves by his piano. Steph looked at Devon. ‘Are you up for it?’ And then, in a softer voice, ‘Willie wants his quid pro quo.’ ‘To take photos of us?’ ‘Oh yeah, but in poses. And in the nick of course.’
While on the camping trip Devon and his friend Steph take ecstasy:
Devon said he wanted to go to bed but Steph wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Take this,’ he said, proffering a little orange pill. ‘What is it? Where did this come from?’ ‘It’s E, from Willie’s little box of tricks.’
In sum, the book contains light drug use, drinking, first-time sex escapades, bullying, and an inappropriate student-teacher relationship (which leads to the teacher’s arrest). By the end of the novel Devon has learned that all his actions have consequences and that the world can be a difficult place to navigate.
What do you think, is the book ban worthy?