A month or so ago, I read an article about attempts by a parent to ban a Toni Morrison book from her child’s school district library. While I knew that there were occasional efforts by some people to ban books from libraries and bookstores, I did not realize the extent and level of organization that exists to protect others, especially children, from reading certain books.
Thankfully, most of these efforts are unsuccessful due mainly to the efforts of librarians, teachers, and booksellers. In fact the American Library Association (ALA), sponsors a Banned Books Week each year. This year Banned Books Week was from September 24 to October 1.
Take a look at the Top 100 Banned / Challenged Books for the decade from 2000 – 2009. It is enlightening. The Harry Potter series tops the list. The Captain Underpants series. The Junie B. Jones series. The Goosebumps books.
You hear about efforts to ban or amend certain classic literature like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain because of the use of “The N Word”, but the number of classics on this list is astounding. If you look at the history of banned books, you can find nearly every classic piece of literature has been the subject of banning efforts.
There are many, many books on this list that my children read in elementary, middle, and high school. I have read many, many of the books on this list.
I am an avid reader. My children are avid readers. My youngest daughters were 4 years old when the first Harry Potter book was published, and we read it together. By the time they were in 1st grade, they were reading and re-reading these books to themselves. Reading these books sparked many lively conversations not only about the details of the events, but also the dynamics of the characters and their relationships.
The 7 Harry Potter books are fantasy novels about children who are friends, but who also happen to be wizards. They are not books about witchcraft and wizardry as much as they are about children coming of age and dealing with the issues of friendship, courage and bravery, heroism, and doing the right thing. Do they deal with difficult issues – child abuse, death of loved ones, betrayal? Yes. They also deal with the issues of adolescence and first loves and morality and good versus evil.
So, when I shared these books with a friend of mine so that her children could read them, too, I was surprised when she returned them to me unread. The pastor of her church had advised the congregation to avoid these books because they were about witches and witchcraft. While I respected her desire to protect her children from these themes (sort of), I have to admit that I was disappointed that someone whom I considered a well-educated and informed parent would make such a decision without even reading them for herself.
For the record, reading the Harry Potter series has not resulted in my children becoming interested in sorcery or witchcraft or in dabbling in the dark arts. They understood, even when they were in the single-digit age group that these books were fantasy not reality.
So, what about books that deal with more difficult issues – racism, rape, incest, child abuse, abandonment, suicide, death, addictions, and homosexuality? Many of these books are challenged on grounds of being pornographic. Pornography is defined as material (books or photographs) that depict erotic behavior with the intention of causing sexual excitement. There is a difference in depicting a rape or incest scene as part of a larger story and pornography which is all about the actual act or behavior. The purpose or reason for describing it is dramatically different.
These issues exist in real life and in the real world. Depicting them in fictional literature does not and will not promote them in real life. As has been said before, truth is often stranger (and harsher) than fiction.
So, what is the result of reading these books? Writing about the human condition – in both fiction and non-fiction – causes us to think about the human condition in ways that we may not have considered before. Reading about rape will not make us a rapist. Reading about child abuse will not make us a child abuser. Reading about racial and sexual / gender bias will not make us bigots or homophobes or chauvinists. But it may help us to NOT be those things.
So what are the ramifications of banning these books from our schools and libraries? Banning books about incest, rape, racism, abuse, and other issues will not make these things go away. In fact, I would suggest that by banning books that deal with these issues we are in fact allowing them to continue by turning a blind eye to them. In essence, we are pretending that these issues do not exist. This only hurts victims and helps perpetrators. Victims often feel isolated, alone, and abandoned because of the conspiracy of secrecy promoted by the conspiracy of silence. Writing about issues promotes talking about issues promotes thinking about issues promotes dealing with issues.
I respect and understand a parent’s desire to protect their children and if you, as a parent, want to protect your child by prohibiting them from reading about certain issues in certain books, than I support that, too. It’s hard for me to accept it, but I do. In return I ask and expect that you don’t tell me that my school and my children cannot and should not be exposed to this literature. In our school district, if a parent or child objects to certain assigned books or articles, then they can be given an alternative assignment. I can live with that.
Thank you to all the librarians and teachers and publishers out there that continue to promote our First Amendment rights to free speech.
And, in honor of Banned Books Week, I went back and read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, #15 on this decade’s Banned Book list and the book that I alluded to at the beginning of this post. And I may just add every book that I haven’t read on this decade’s top 100 list to my reading list.