It’s Banned Books Week! Or … is it? Yes, it is. But it seems just as we don’t all agree on what make a good book, we also don’t agree on what we mean when we say “banned” books.
Last night I threw a couple of tweets about BBW out into the twittersphere. I tweeted that, purely by coincidence, I was teaching the oft-challenged To Kill a Mockingbird during Banned Books Week. I also tweeted that I’d loaned a student a copy of John Green’s Looking for Alaska and asked, “Has that ever actually been banned?”
I got two responses to the tweet about Looking for Alaska. One was from John Green himself, who with admirable economy of Twitter characters, simply replied, “Many times.”
I’ll admit I got all lightheaded and fangirly when I saw that John Green had responded to one of my tweets (and rushed off to brag to my teenaged son, the one who loaned me Looking for Alaska in the first place). I mean, it wasn’t quite as exciting as if Harper Lee had tweeted back to me about To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was right up there in my list of exciting Twitter moments.
The next time I checked Twitter, another user had responded quite differently to the same tweet, simply with the word “No.” By way of elucidation he directed me to this webpage, a blog called “Safe Libraries” which seems to be dedicated to attacking the American Library Association and the concept of Banned Books Week in particular. Essentially they’re saying no, almost none of the books celebrated during “Banned Books Week” are actually banned; they have simply been challenged, usually by parents who have a right to voice an opinion on what their children read. Reasonable enough … isn’t it?
Well, this whole thing interests me greatly, and not just because it got me a tweet from John Green. I’m a writer and an English teacher and so most of my interaction at this stage in my life is with people who passionately believe in the freedom to read and who are completely opposed to limiting access to books because someone deems them offensive. And, frankly, that’s my view as well. But I haven’t forgotten that I grew up in an environment (not in my home, but in my church and church school) where many people held the view that access to books should be limited for the safety of children. For many of my Adventist peers, reading material in childhood was limited to books that were produced by our church publishing houses, and even some of those were suspect (I still vividly remember the forbidden lure that June Strong’s Mindy held for some of my classmates because they had been told that at 13 they were too young to read it).
My parents took a different approach, and allowed and encouraged me to read widely. Reading widely caused me to question a lot of things I was taught and exposed me to many different viewpoints. Reading has been my best education — I’ve learned far more from books I read on my own throughout life than from any of my university degrees. I still know people who, as adults, restrict their reading to the Bible and the works of a few carefully-approved religious authors, and if that works for them I’m not going to criticize them. But by reading widely I’ve been exposed to and in some cases accepted a lot of ideas outside the ones I was introduced to as a child. Even by the time I left high school I had read and thought about things that definitely were not on the Adventist-approved agenda of my church or school, and I get that some parents are uncomfortable with their kids having that kind of exposure. I get it, but I think they’re wrong.
The person who said that Looking for Alaska had never been banned was drawing a distinction between “challenged” and “banned” (the ALA actually uses both terms on the Banned Books website linked above) and saying that parents have every right to challenge a book they feel is inappropriate for their child to read. I have mixed feelings about this. I am a big believer in being aware of what my kids are reading, watching and listening to. The whole reason I read Looking for Alaska in the first place was that Chris wanted to read it (after we’d both read and loved another John Green book). I found out enough about the book to know why some parents are uncomfortable about it; I read it right after Chris did, and I discussed it with him. Admittedly, parts of the discussion were a bit squirmy, the way it can get when a forty-seven-year-old mom tries to talk to her fourteen-year-old son about a sex scene in novel … or actually about anything with the word “sex” in it. And I watched with him this great video where John Green talks about the book being labelled “pornographic” by some who have “challenged” it.
I absolutely believe that what we put into our minds shapes us, and I believe as parents we need to be keenly aware of what goes into our kids’ minds through the media of books, TV shows, movies, music and the Internet. I also believe that as our kids get older we have to equip them to make those choices for themselves and recognize that not all their choices will align neatly with ours. Are there books I would “ban” my kids from reading? I don’t know. There are certainly books I disapprove of. Unlike many Christian parents I have no problem with Harry Potter, love the books myself, but I would have been uneasy if Emma had wanted to read Twilight — not because of the vampires and werewolves but because of the unhealthy male-female relationship it portrayed. And I’ve told her I dislike Gossip Girl and any of the many other books for teen girls that seem to me to glorify cliqueishness and meanness and materialism and all the things I hate.
But I believe that as parents our involvement in our kids’ reading and other media choices needs to come through reading, watching and listening alongside them, and discussing with them what they read, watch and listen to and what they think about it (even if those discussions are squirmy). To take the other route — whether you call it book-banning or book-challenging — goes back to that paradigm that many of my peers are raised with, where you protect children from danger (and dangerous ideas) by limiting their access to the outside world, making sure they never see books that we consider “bad” because those books are not available on library or bookstore shelves. Not only does this mean that the books aren’t available to other people, who may have different worldviews from us, it also leads to a mentality that, for some, continues well into adulthood. It’s a mentality whereby you keep your mind “pure” not by learning about and engaging with different ideas and worldviews but by avoiding them. And it leads to ridiculous situations like a chain of Christian bookstores refusing to carry a new book about Biblical womanhood by brilliant author Rachel Held Evans because the book contains … wait for it … the word vagina. I know, right? In a book about womanhood. It’s like women had vaginas, or something.
So yes, as a parent I want to be involved in and to influence my child’s reading, viewing, listening, because I want to be a part of how my kids grow up to see the world. But I also recognize I can’t control how they’re going to see and experience the world — and I especially can’t extend that illusion of control that I want to have over my own child, to the whole community, as if everyone shares my values. Ultimately I want my kids to read widely and think deeply, even though I know that will involve them embracing some ideas and making some choices that I’m not comfortable with.
And I want books — all the books, even the ones I hate, even 50 Shades of Grey which I think might be a fair contender for the worst book of all time — out there for people to read and think about and decide for themselves. So that we all know that all kinds of ideas and experiences are OK to explore, talk about, and write about. If we live in a society where it’s OK to shut some people up, somebody might want to make me shut up. And we can’t have that, can we?
[Point of interest: none of my books has ever been "banned." But a few have been "questioned" or "challenged" in Adventist schools. And I'm kind of proud of that].