Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Don't Ban Books


I was going to save this post for Banned Books week but a few things that I read this last week infuriated me, and I couldn't wait until September. And you know, I think that we need more than a once a year reminder about this. First the ALA announced their list of this year's most banned books, which had some surprising titles. And then I read the story of some women in Florida who basically want to preemptively ban all of the books in the library of the whole COUNTY. To all of this, I have one very simple thing to say: Don't ban books.

As I have already documented here, I love books and reading. When I was a little kid, I was an incredibly voracious reader. My parents were both in graduate school when I was little, so we had books all over our house. I learned to read at age three, so I grew up with the perspective that reading was just what you did with your leisure time. My reading level was consistently years above my age, so books geared at kids my age were always too easy and boring for me. Therefore, I usually read books that were the perfect level of difficulty and complexity for me, but the topics were often a few years above me in maturity level. There are times when I've reread some of the books that I loved as a kid and realize that there are entire plotlines that went way over my head because I was too young for them (for instance, House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L'Engle is one of my favorite books in the world, but wow did I miss a lot in those first ten or so readings). My parents never forbade me to read books that were too old for me, or that might have themes about drugs, or sex, or abuse. Instead, my mom just read books along with me.

Any books that my mom had the slightest question about, she would read as soon as I finished it. I thought that we were just sharing books, and we were, but she was also checking up on what I was reading. My tricky mother, I only realized when I was in my twenties that this wasn't just a fun mom and daughter book club. In that way, I felt like I had all of the freedom in the world to read whatever I wanted, and I also felt free to talk to my mom about whatever I was reading and whatever upsetting or confusing issues raised therein because I knew that she was reading the books too. Not only did this lead to great communication between me and my mom, it made it much easier for me to bring up difficult topics with my mom, because it is so much easier for a pre-teen to talk about hard things in the context of a fictional world than the context of real life. It also, not coincidentally, lead to a lifetime of my mother and I sharing books and handing them off to one another, and she's still the first person I call when I finish a book that I love so that I can insist that she read it too.

And let's talk about some of those books on the most banned list. Twilight? Really? Twilight has many problems, but being sexually explicit is just not one of them. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an absolutely wonderful book that has [SPOILER ALERT] molestation as a key plot point -- isn't it important for kids to learn about that, and to know that they should be able to talk to their parents or someone else about it? [END SPOILERS] And really, penguins? A true story about two male penguins that became a couple? To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged because there's racism in it, which seems to be missing the whole point about the reason that kids should read this book. There are plenty of trashy books that are full of sex, drugs, violence, and racism but there is also a lot of great literature full of all of those topics, and I'm so glad that my parents never barred me from reading any of it

Instead of the fantastic and thoughtful parenting employed by my parents, the parents in that Florida county would prefer to be the kind of parents who don't want to engage with their children at all. So instead of sitting down and talking to them about sex, or drug use, or creepy sparkling stalkery vampires, the parents choose to just slap a warning label on the books so that they can make sure that their kids, and the kids of lots of other parents are never faced with those issues, and therefore never even learn about sex and drugs and creepy stalking sparkly vampires.

But we all know that that's not what happens. Teenagers will always learn about drugs and sex (okay, maybe not the vampires). And there is nothing more enticing to all of us than the forbidden -- the more their parents tell them that they're not allowed to read something, or see something, or do something, the more teens will want to do it. I am not saying that the good move is to tell your teens to go out and use drugs and have sex and get together with those vampires, but trying to keep them from even learning that any of those things exist will make them all the more exciting. I had read plenty of books that had drugs and sex as part of the plotlines by the time that I was in high school, and what those books taught me was that none of those things was a bed of roses, and that I really didn't want to deal with all of that stress when just being a fourteen year old was hard enough. Are all teenagers going to make the same choices that I did? No, but I would prefer that they at least had all of the information available to them in order to make the choice that is the correct one for them.

Those parents in Florida, and all other people who want to ban or otherwise restrict books really just need to stop and think about how education is the best thing for all of us, and how they should be trying to broaden their childrens' minds, and not limit them. And then don't ban books.


  1. Man, my dad recommended the first book that I ever read with sex or swearing in it. I remember being horrified and trying to finish it before he read it because I thought FOR SURE he would make me stop, but then I found out that he'd read it before.

    The parents who are so "concerned" about their child's welfare and what they're exposed to are infuriating. They expect libraries and teacher to be the ones to police what their kids do, but PARENTS are the ones who need to be more active in that regard.

  2. My mother said recently that I was always in her hair until I learned to read. Then she never saw me.

    Books: a way better babysitter than TV.

  3. And it's not only that those parents don't want to engage with their kids, they want to decide what's appropriate for OTHER PEOPLE'S kids. I'd rather know what my kid is reading about so she can talk to me about it than leave it to her and her ignorant friends to try to figure out when they know NOTHING.

    In conclusion: restrict your own kids' reading and let me worry about mine. ARGH. RAGE.

  4. Yes, Akilah, excellent point! Do what you want about your own kids, but let other people's kids alone.

  5. I totally agree. There are some books that a much more explicit (James Patterson, anyone?) but you don't see THEM getting banned, do you? Obviously some books simply aren't appropriate for young kids, but that doesn't mean banning it from the library!