ANSWERS ON PAGES
By David Levitan
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 will help us understand.” Answers in the Pages by David Levithan is a book for children who are grappling with why books are challenged and what they can do about it.
The novel consists of three intertwined narrative threads: the main story is narrated in the first person by Donovan, a fifth grader whose mother has started a campaign to question a book assigned to him in English class: an action novel and adventures with possibly homosexual protagonists. The second thread gives us a glimpse of “The Adventurers,” the delightfully cheesy made-up novel that Donovan’s mother objects to. The final thread, narrated 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 very end.
“Answers in the Pages” will empower young readers as Donovan and his classmates come together to speak out in support of their teacher, the book, and their right to read it. They become part of the solution, engaging in a conversation that some of the adults in their lives would prefer to hide from them.
At first, Donovan is confused on the subject, then is torn between supporting the book or supporting his family. There’s no ambiguity in his pro-book stance, but it’s hard to argue against parents. Ultimately, for Donovan, doing so is a big part of making the change.
The novel’s resolution is neat in a way that real-world endings rarely are, but it does provide a good introduction to the subject of censorship for its target age group.
Levithan walks a fine line here. The characters in his novel who oppose “The Adventurers” don’t express many overtly homophobic ideas; Donovan’s mother says the book is “inappropriate,” but she never explains why she thinks that. While this feels real (parents who are trying to prevent their children from learning about homosexuality at school probably won’t explain it to them at home in the process), it undermines the central tension of the narrative.
Donovan draws his parents’ homophobia from classmates whose parents are less afraid of identity talks, which lends an authentic tone. Children are going to learn all the complex truths of the world one way or another.
Despite its title, readers are likely to leave “Answers in the Pages” with bigger questions and bigger feelings, which is the best possible outcome. It’s an accessible and engaging look at the insidious and troubling practice of challenging books that reflect diversity. And it’s likely to spark much-needed conversations between caregivers and children. My hope is that it will make it to the school library shelves and stay there (except, of course, when it is picked up by a young reader).
To question a book about what it means to challenge a book would take this conversation to a surreal level. Yet Levithan’s novel is itself everything Donovan’s mother and people like her oppose: a celebration of queer stillness, of self-discovery, of alliance, of the way books can open up our world and unleash adventures both real and imagined, from the fact that whether we love our same-gender friends as friends or more than friends, we deserve to have our stories told, read and shared.