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336828Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey by Margaret Peterson Haddix

I read The Simon Pulse [Mass Market] Edition, 2004. First published 1996.

small slim hardcover, 125 pages. Teen Fiction.

“Things are so bad, I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t do something…”

Everyone has to keep a journal in Mrs. Dunphrey’s English class, but the teacher has promised she won’t read any entry marked “Do not read this.” It’s the kind of assignment Tish Bonner, one of the girls with big hair who sit in the back row, usually wouldn’t take very seriously. But right now, Tish desperately needs someone to talk to, even if it’s only a notebook she doesn’t dare let anyone read.

As Tish’s life spins out of control, the entries in her journal become more and more private…and dangerous. Is she risking everything that matters to her by putting the truth on paper? And is she risking more by keeping silent? ~jacket copy

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Natalya picked Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey for her Banned Books Week read. (It is a small book so naturally I picked it up as well.)  The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (abffe) hosts a page, “The Stories Behind Some Past Book Bans and Challenges,” upon which they share this about Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey:

The Galt Joint Union Elementary School board in California decided to ban this novel that explores the life of a troubled teen after a parent complained of its risqué themes and language. It was removed from classrooms and can only be checked out of the library with parental permission.

Risqué. adjective.
slightly indecent or liable to shock, especially by being sexually suggestive.
(Oxford English Dictionary)

abffe provides this link to this kidSPEAK! article about the Galt ban. Much of the argument towards the banning of the novel is age-appropriateness : The Young Adult Novel was an assigned read in a 7th grade English class.  “Superintendent Jeffrey Jennings said he did not feel the book was appropriate for seventh-graders.”We should be able to have some discretion as to what our kids have to read,” he said.”

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The format of the novel is an exciting one. I rarely care for the diary trope but Haddix is brilliant; naturally she is a marvelous choice for the classroom where such varied forms of creative writing are shared. The appeal, besides it being a short (manageable) read? Was it all those headings that read “don’t read this,” that insists that you must? Or is it that Tish is quite compelling. The developing characters finding depth and breadth in the course of the novel via an Haddix/Tish’s strength of voice. The setting is created with a deft hand, the entries not hinting at the least contrivance. I think much of the success is that Haddix doesn’t have Tish replicating long conversations or improbable scenery or waxing poetic. Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey holds a focus without overdoing it and without oversimplifying.

November 18

DON’T read this, Mrs. Dunphrey.

So you’d appreciate the chance to get to read one of my entries, Mrs. Dunphrey? Oh gerat, wonderful. I’m sure they’d make you very happy. Oh, isn’t this precious, you could say, how well Tish writes about her parents’ fights. “Tish,” you’d ask, “would you mind if The Lodestar reprinted that wonderful description of you and your brother cowering in his room while your father throws flowerpots at your mother? It’s so exquisitely done.

[…]

Mrs. Dunphrey, I don’t really dislike you. I’ts just, your problem is that you’re too innocent. You’re even worse than Matt. You look out at us in the classroom and you think we’re all there ready and eager to learn about literature and grammar. I don’t know, maybe we would be, if we weren’t too busy thinking about our real lives. It’s not just me, either. I’m not the only one whose parents fight all the time. There are other kids who can’t think about Julius Caesar because they’re worrying about their parents being out of work. Or they’re afraid they’re pregnant. Or they’re on drugs. (45)

I adore the fact that Margaret Peterson Haddix’s novel told in entries by a girl who doesn’t want them read by her teacher is a book people do not want their children to read. The entries are dangerous, increasingly so. At first Tish is embarrassed by her situation. She feels isolated, passed over. She’s driven to write about it. But continuing to share begins to involve greater risks if Mrs. Dunphrey were to dare read the journal entries. What happens to Tish Bonner and her younger brother is indecent; it should be shocking. But not in the sense we should look away. Rather, Tish’s story is one we should be staring at straight in the face. “Is she risking everything that matters to her by putting the truth on paper? And is she risking more by keeping silent?” What is at risk by keeping silent? A question a concerned 7th grade teacher (among others) is bound to ask. A question 7th graders (among others) should be thinking about.

January 27

DON’T read this, Mrs. Dunphrey.

Yes, ma’am, I will try to begin writing so “wonderfully extensively” again. I’m so sorry I lost my journal-keeping commitment for a while there. I should have remembered that that was supposed to be the most important thing in my life.

Do you know how dumb this is? What good is this journal, anyway? It’s not like I’m ever going to be a writer or anything. And it’s not like anybody would ever care about my life, that they’d ever read this (or that I’d ever let anyone read this.) If any adult really cared about me, my life would be totally different, let me tell you. That’s why I’m trying so hard to make things better for Matt. Not that I’m doing too great a job at it.

But about school–it’s just silly, the stupid little assignments all you teachers make up. And then Mrs. Rachethead takes five points off anything if we forget to tear off the scraggly edges of our paper where ti comes out of wire notebooks. And Mr. Tremont won’t accept our homework unless we’ve got out name, the date, the class, and the page numbers, in that order, in the upper right-hand corner of every page. Do you all make up these rules just to amuse yourselves? Just to jerk our chains? (67)

Tish is in her Sophmore year of High School and it doesn’t look like she will make to the next grade. She admits she doesn’t care about excelling in her classes, she just needs her diploma.  She already knows she doesn’t have the financial capabilities to go to college. She knows a lot. She knows what many kids her age know. She knows what feels real to her right now, and remembers quite clearly what the past felt like, too.

Tish’s anger is apparent, but not all of it stems from ‘typical teen angst or attitude.’ And despite the questionable social circles, she is a good girl. And truly, not even her best friends come across as ‘no good’ as much as they seem confused, alone, and wanting of attention as well.  She is not belligerent or anti-establishment without cause. There is a lot going on in her life, much of it outside her control–and it is hardly expressed in explicit terms, without explanation, or without consequence.

An uncomfortable and unpopular (among some) part of the story where Tish is asked out by her boss, the assistant manager at Burger Boy. She refuses and he cuts her hours, which is corrected by the Manager, but the enmity remains. One of her best friends thought she should have just gone out with him at least once, for the sake of a good schedule. While Tish, at times, questions her refusal, or its potential harshness, the novel supports her decision. Indeed, Tish, though still flawed, comes across as the wiser of the females in the story.

Another dilemma is the shoplifting. Her friend does it in, what Tish speculates, an attempt to get a parent’s attention. When Tish shoplifts, it is a desperate attempt at survival–and it still haunts. Corners are created and backed into, and Tish has choices; she also has strong emotions: Fear and Anger and Love being the most prevalent. She needs a guide, someone with a promising vision of her future, a sounding board, and this assigned journal.

Another difficulty, besides the abusive father (not to downplay this) is the mother–and the other adults. Images of neglectful abusive parents, the perception that all other adults are naive, dumb, or unavailable is hard. The mother has issues that effect the children and she essentially abandons them in various and progressive forms until she is physically miles away. Tish is stronger and older and cares for her brother Matt as best she can, but she is alone and ultimately unprepared and without enough means. She doesn’t trust anyone, afraid of what she and her peers believe to be true about the Adult world and their systems; and, again, not without reason. The coping skills her late Granma (maternal grandmother) had to offer diminishes under the strain of circumstance and self-realization.  What is vital to know is that Tish’s situation and perceptions do not remain as they have begun or worsened. Mrs. Dunphrey does prove her wrong. She does prove to be caring and trustworthy. The teacher shows embarrassment over the misconception of her and does come through. And there are more parental figures, not perfect either, but suddenly available and capable. The future all along had yet to be properly forecasted.

It is a marvelous aspect that Haddix does not undermine the novel or her protagonist by redeeming any adult action; and that she can do it without perpetuating  the idea that everyone in the world is cold and caught up in their own structures! Not all children are bad, even if they might physically appear so, nor are all grown-ups. Children are vulnerable, and they know it. But they are also powerful and they should know this too. And every child whether cute or barbed should have someone to love them, someone to trust. In Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey, it is abundantly clear that children need someone to acknowledge the harshness of their realities; namely, their teachers and schoolmates, the people with whom they spend the most time. Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey would tell children that there are teachers and administrators and peers who really do care. That they should dare those people to read their journals, to help them escape abusive situations, to advise them into making good choices.

And what does the decision by the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District board tells their children in the banning of this book from the classroom? Those with lives involving “risqué themes and language” should continue writing “don’t you dare read this” on the heading of all their papers. The censors evidently do not believe 7th graders can experience even an inkling of Tish’s or Matt’s indecent or shocking lives; evidently the classroom (and questionably the library) is not a venue for discussion, education, or compassion. Margaret Peterson Haddix’s novel Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey is not perpetuating the belief that Schools and their Adults don’t care about them, those like the censors found in Galt, California are. How age-inappropriate is that?!

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Note: The use of the word risqué may have been melodramatic. The “especially by being sexually suggestive,” nuance to the definition is underwhelming in the circumstance.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. JimV says:

    I was at that board meeting, speaking against the ban. One of the parents who complained about this book compared it to Hustler magazine, which I think might have influenced a reporter to refer to it as “risqué”.

    It wasn’t long after this episode that we decided to leave Galt.

    Some of your links for this story are no longer working, but I was able to find the original article on the Lodi News-Sentinel web site:
    http://www.lodinews.com/news/article_7d7c62c6-c0a1-55de-837f-e2aa8fdd5acd.html?mode=story
    But if I remember correctly, the board voted 3-2 on the ban, with Don Notolli casting the other dissenting vote.

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