Walter Cronkite once said, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”
This week (Sept. 30-Oct.6) is the 30th anniversary of National Banned Book Week.
It drives me nuts that I even have to write that. Seriously.
Here we are in 2012, and we’re still challenging and banning books from libraries and schools. Every time I think about it, this little ball of rage forms in my chest.
Let me be clear about something: I am all about freedom. That would be freedom to decide what your own child gets to read or doesn’t get to read. It’s not my call to tell any parent that they should let their child read something they think is inappropriate. If someone thinks Harry Potter is the devil incarnate, then they should go right ahead and think that and not let their kids read the books. I will defend anyone’s right to believe that and to exert authority over the reading material that ends up in their home and in their child’s hands.
I’d appreciate it, though, if they’d offer that same courtesy to other people. If I don’t get to tell you what you or your child should or should not be reading, you don’t get to do that to me. So don’t call my local library and say “I demand you remove The Hunger Games trilogy from the shelves (see here for an explanation) just because it gave your middle school kid nightmares. I’m an adult, and I might want to read it myself. And I assure you, I can cope with a nightmare or two.
When my daughter was in high school, there was the usual kerfuffle at another local school about Catcher in the Rye, one of those books that seems to always appear in somewhere near the top of the most challenged books lists. In some ways, I was amused that a book could cause such a stink just because it’s got some less than savory language in it. I mean, chances are her special snowflake has heard worse than a few F-Bombs while riding the school bus or walking down the hall between classes or in the locker room at the gym. Reading an interview with the parent in question in my local paper, though, really ticked me off. The parent in question hadn’t ever read the book. But she’d “heard” that it had swearing in it. She didn’t want her son to read a book that had swearing in it. There was no attempt made to look at what value the book might have, or what her son might learn from it. It had swearing in it. It must be trash.
Oy. That really did bug me—she didn’t know what the book was about, she just knew she didn’t want her kid reading it. Well, okay. Why not go to your local library, check out the book, and see what it’s all about before raising a fuss about something?
(As a side note, I’d also like to say that I really think that by the time any child hits the age of sixteen, that child is really a fledgling adult and should be granted the privilege of making choices about their reading material themselves, but this isn’t a parenting blog. But I’m much more inclined toward a sympathetic viewpoint regarding parental control over books with younger children than with teenagers. Just so you know where I stand on that…)
I’m always astounded by what appears on the banned book lists and the reasons given for the challenges (Incidentally, you can view the most challenged books list for last year here). Some perennial challenges include the Harry Potter books (glorifies witchcraft), Little House on the Prairie (depicts racism against Native Americans), Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird (depict racism against African Americans), and recently, The Hunger Games (too violent, anti-family). And of course, Catcher in the Rye.
Books do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they written in one. Huck Finn and Mockingbird were written at a time in our history when people of color were treated appallingly in this country. They are accurate to the time periods they were set in, and they are meant to teach their readers something about human behavior. They don’t condone racism and violence—they speak out against it. How do we expect our children to learn from our own mistakes throughout history if we won’t let them see the effect those mistakes had on other human beings? Likewise, Laura Ingalls Wilder is writing a somewhat sanitized view of her own life, recording the history of the times she grew up in as part of the great western migration. That history included prejudice against Native Americans. Should she be untruthful about that? Pretend that part of our history didn’t exist? Should we pretend that the violence in The Hunger Games isn’t a reflection of our contemporary culture, which is violent, and which does trend toward sensationalism?
I think people have a right to restrict what their children are exposed to, and naturally I think people have a right to read whatever they want. I mean, honestly, it’s not my call, and while I never stopped my own child from reading anything she wanted to read, that’s my kid. If someone doesn’t want their teenaged son to read Catcher in the Rye, then they absolutely have the right to request an alternate title for their child if it’s a class assignment, or to have their child return a book they think is unsuitable to the library. But I wish that before they’d call and complain to their local schools and libraries and ask that titles they disapprove of be completely removed that they’d think about the opportunities they are depriving their children of—the chance to talk to their parents, and with their teachers and peers, about upsetting or controversial subjects. It’s an opportunity to initiate a real, useful dialogue about volatile issues—about bullying, gender issues, racism, whatever.
They’re also preventing them from exploring a world and viewpoints contrary to the ones they’re currently exposed to. If we don’t challenge our children to think for themselves, how on earth will they ever see past the smoke and the mirrors that is contemporary politics? How will they learn what is fact and what is fiction? How will they learn to dream, to aspire to greatness, to hope for better things? How will they learn to decide what’s right and what’s wrong? How will they learn to be productive citizens of a nation founded on the idea of personal liberty if one of the first examples they get is a parent trying to take that personal liberty away from someone else? Because it must be said: when someone asks that a book be removed from a public or school library/reading list, they are tacitly saying that no one else has a right to decide what they should and should not read for themselves.
And that’s just wrong.