I wrote this post two years ago for Banned Books Week 2009, and I’m re-posting it this week to kick off Banned Books Week 2011. There are some really extreme ideas out there about what censorship means, so I share this post in the hope of illuminating a moderate view. Later this week I plan to write more on the subject. Enjoy!
It’s a little funny at first, the whole concept of reading banned books. I mean, it feels dangerous, right? It feels like you’re doing something you shouldn’t, peeking at something you have no business seeing.
Until somebody explains to you that Little House on the Prairie has been banned. Or The Giving Tree. Or Alice in Wonderland. Or The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.
Then it just seems plain ridiculous.
I think my students recognized this yesterday when I introduced the concept of Banned Books Week to them.
Their first reaction was confusion, since they thought I was telling them Harry Potter is a “band” book (oh, the joy of homophones).
Their second reaction, after I showed them the PTA meeting clip from Field of Dreams (“Step outside, you Nazi cow!”), was laughter mixed with a tinge of uncertainty. After all, aren’t banned books banned for a reason?
Their third reaction, when I showed them the covers of the children’s books I mentioned above, was a collective gasp.
“Wait a second,” that gasp clearly said. “Something’s not right.”
It seems to me that this is exactly what Banned Books Week is all about: showing people what censorship really looks like.
The trouble is, of course, that it’s complicated.
Does my freedom to have books available at the library impinge on your right not to walk into something offensive? If I want my children to read the picture book And Tango Makes Three, does having it on the library shelves endanger your children by exposure to the idea of gay adoption?
I live in a conservative community. I can’t pretend that I don’t understand that side of it. We all want to protect our children. But a lot of people don’t see it the way I do: that there are books and ideas out there that can save our children–except that if those books are banned, the children and the books might never meet.
For example, Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Twisted was challenged in at least two school districts this past month. She shared with blog readers the letter she was sending to those superintendents, and it included excerpts from letters she’s received from teen readers who were thinking of committing suicide–one who had even attempted it twice–and decided against it after reading Twisted.
So, yeah–I meant it literally when I say that books can save.
One of the comments in class last night that I really appreciated was that the way things should work is that parents should be in tune enough to their kids that they can communicate about every issue openly, whether suicidal feelings or gay adoption or racist terms in To Kill a Mockingbird. But too often children and teens can’t turn to their parents about the things troubling them, and it falls to a perceptive librarian or teacher to choose a book off a shelf and hand it to that student and say, “Here. Try this. See if this helps.”
That’s what I’m fighting for this week. I’m fighting for the right to have the right book on the shelf when the right reader needs it.
At the same time, I believe that parents should still have a say–for their own children.
In high school I did many alternate assignments in the library while my history or English classes watched R-rated movies, because my parents and I decided that movie rating was inappropriate for our family. We didn’t try to dictate, however, that the other students shouldn’t watch Braveheart either.
After discussing it as a class last night, it was great to see how a little bit of information helped open minds about the topic of banning books. That’s my hope for this blog post and this week, too: that a little bit of information will help stop censorship from removing books that are on the shelves for a reason.
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On a side note, I once heard from some librarians at our university library that there is a case of certain books they keep locked away.
“Whoa!” I thought. “Those must be the really dangerous books.”
As it turned out, they were books that had been locked away for their own safety.
It was the readers who were dangerous to the books. Writing over offensive words with a permanent marker. Ripping out offensive pages. Shredding whole novels.
So the librarians locked the books away to keep them safe from the efforts of censors, and you had to get special permission to check them out.