Book Review: The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley
Saturday, December 31, 2022
But then, she thought, looking up at the tiled ceiling to stop herself from crying, wasn’t that what growing up meant? Wasn’t it just a succession of actions and incidents where you break your childhood promises to yourself and do the very things you always said you wouldn’t do? And how many more promises would she have to break before she came out on the other side?
One of my clearest reading memories is the book Tilla by Ilse Koehn. Published in 1981, it’s out of print now (and I just checked: my library also doesn’t have it on the shelf anymore, although they did at some point while I was working there because I checked it out and reread it, maybe in 2010 or 2011); it is a love story about two teenagers in Berlin during the war.
It doesn’t stand out in my memory because of the love story, particularly, or because of the writing. It’s lodged there because it has a sexual scene with an experience I had never imagined happening between two people. But when it happened to me, after I’d read the book, I knew what to expect because I had read that scene. (I’m only not writing the name of the act because I don’t want weirdos landing on my page after googling it, not out of prudishness.)
I thought a lot about that reading experience while I reread the book The Carnival at Bray this week. I read this book in 2015 when I spotted it on the Printz Award list, and as I love books set in Ireland and is about how the music of a generation impacts one teenager’s life, I couldn’t not read it then. I enjoyed it and thought about it every once in awhile and put it on my staff recommendation shelf (when I still had one) (and while my library still had a copy).
But I decided I needed to buy a copy and reread it when I realized it’s on a list of banned books. But not just any list, a list of books that Alpine School District has. The books on this list, which you can see here, are not allowed to be in any school library in the district. This is pretty personal to me, not only because I am deeply opposed to book bans. Alpine is the district my kids have attended, the district I fought for during this year’s local election, and the district I worked for.
If you look at the list, you’ll spot many books that are currently being banned in many places. Gender Queer of course. A Court of Thorns and Roses, which does have a lot of sex. Ellen Hopkins’ and Lauren Myracle’s books, which also have sex in them.
But my brain makes that screeching sound of a needle drug across a record when I get to The Carnival at Bray.
I have to add a caveat: I tend to not really pay attention to sex scenes in books. They don’t offend me and I read them, but I don’t pay them any more attention than the rest of the story. Sex is, after all, part of being human. That means that (with exceptions like Tilla) I have gotten myself in trouble sometimes as a librarian in a conservative community, because I will heartily recommend a book and then the patron will be annoyed because it has a sex scene (or swearing) that I didn’t prepare them for.
But The Library at Bray seemed like such a random inclusion for this banned book list. All of the other books are currently being discussed as “bad” for teenagers. And then there’s this book that’s now out of print (I bought a used copy) and was published eight years ago. A book that’s literally had no negative press, until some Utah County mom got ahold of it. And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember one bit of sex in the story. It’s about Maggie, whose mom marries a man from Ireland and so they move to the small town of Bray, a suburb of Dublin. She struggles with fitting in and misses her uncle Kevin, a drug-addicted musician who had introduced her to grunge music (and changed her life, as music does in your adolescence). She runs away from Bray to attend the Nirvana concert in Rome with tickets Kevin sent her.
Rome, Ireland, a bit of romance, an adolescent girl struggling to fit in, to not hate her mother, to understand the ways adults can betray you and love you all at once, and a Ferris wheel: those were my memories of this book. (Alas, I did not write a book review about it when I read it in 2014.)
WHY would it be on a banned book list?
After rereading it I know. It’s ridiculous, of course, but someone banned it because sex happens in the story. Nothing is described in detail; one of the scenes is troubling and the other is sweet, but it is more her impression of the experiences rather than a sweat-and-blood description. But yes: Maggie has sex. She has a bunch of experiences that teenagers have: makes a tenuous friendship and then it gets destroyed; argues with her mother; listens to music her family hates; and has sex.
And here’s the thing.
Book banning is always driven by fear. It is driven by the compulsion to hide what is troublesome to some people.
But hiding it doesn’t make it go away.
The truth is, sex scenes in novels don’t cause teenagers to have sex. Teenagers are curious about it and may eventually have sex because they have bodies that are confusing networks of hormones and change and developing brains, because they fall in love or because someone makes them or because they just want to experience it.
Because they are human.
Adolescence is a wild ride. It is so full of everything that’s new and maybe dangerous and brimming with adulthood, right on the edge of it. And sex—wondering about it, flirting on its edge, sometimes actually experiencing it, is one of those experiences. Is it always the right experience at the right time? Of course not. Maybe not ever.
But pretending that teenagers don’t think about it makes it more dangerous.
Reading that scene in Tilla helped me understand. It didn’t make that experience much less weird or uncomfortable or just too vulnerable, but a bit. Enough that I was OK. And that is what books do, sometimes, if we’re lucky. Teach us something we need to know about the world before the world teaches it in harsher ways. I know whatever Mormon mom put The Carnival at Bray on that banned book would disagree with me, but I don’t really care. Her job is to raise her children, and she can do that. But thinking that she can also raise everyone’s children?
That’s not her responsibility.