This is national Banned Book Week. For those who aren’t in the loop, it might seem odd to celebrate banned books. I mean, if you’re in favor of banning books, you probably don’t want to brandish their titles all over the place, and if you’re against banning books, what’s there to celebrate in that?
But the point of Banned Book Week is to point out how ridiculous it is to attempt to ban books in the first place. I believe that no one should attempt to tell others what or what not to read.
The term “banned books” is really a misnomer for the most part. Most of the books are “challenged,” that is, someone, often a parent of a school student, challenges the book’s presence in the school library or in the curriculum. Some are pulled from library shelves. Sometimes they are stuffed away and must be requested in person from the librarian, as if something is evil about the book. Very rarely, that I know of, is a book literally banned from being accessible if someone really wants it. But that’s all semantics.
The issue is one of fear. That’s why books are challenged or pulled from shelves. Parents (it usually is parents, although there are others who challenge books, and for other reasons, but I will focus on parents just for simplicity’s sake) are afraid of what their children might read in a book. What’s to be afraid of? Those who challenge books often refer to sexual content, drug use, racism, gay characters, f-bombs or other language they deem objectionable, and more. Huck Finn has been challenged because of the overt racism it depicts. A children’s book from several years ago, The Higher Power of Lucky, was challenged because of the word scrotum.
So why do these kinds of things make people afraid? Really? What’s so scary about the word scrotum? It is the correct anatomical word for a normal, everyday part of the body. In this case, it was referring to a dog’s scrotum. Aren’t we supposed to teach the correct anatomical words to our children? Don’t they do that in health class? Why is the racism in Huck Finn so scary? Could it be that folks are afraid to acknowledge that in parts of the country, racism so overt and embedded still exists?
Here’s what I think. People fear the truth. They fear real names for body parts, because then they might actually have to talk to their kids about sex, sexuality, and other scary topics. People are afraid of swearing because they are worried their kids might start using those words. I’ve actually heard parents object to depictions of sex because they don’t want to have their kids reading “how-to” manuals.
Ellen Hopkins is one of my favorite authors, as well as one of the most challenged authors in contemporary publishing. Why? Her books address scary, hard topics like addiction, prostitution, abuse, gambling, teen pregnancy, parental abandonment, and more. But she is also enormously popular with her teen audience. Why is that? Because real teens deal with these scary realities every day. Chris Crutcher, another of my favorite authors, is often banned for the same things. But he works as a psychologist with teens, so he knows first hand what kind of troubles they live with. Why shouldn’t they get to read about their own realities in books?
Here’s what I think: there is nothing so awful, so horrifying, so scary that it shouldn’t be in a book. For many reasons. First of all, look at all the atrocities human beings are capable of perpetrating. Genocide. War. Abuse. Corruption. If it’s real, it should be in books. Books are a safe way to experience scary things. Our hope is that our kids will never live through a holocaust, but I think they should read all about it, talk about it, live it through a character in a book, in order to feel and understand why we should never allow that sort of thing to happen ever again.
Second, kids see, hear, live this stuff daily. Nothing in books is a shocker to them. Spend some time in a real junior high if you don’t believe me. A novel would not seem realistic to a teen reader (for example) if it had absolutely no swearing. Not that it should have f-bombs in every sentence, but it should have a real voice, not a purified voice we parents would prefer. We cannot protect our kids from every bad word, act of violence, or sex scene. No matter how much we try. And I’m not sure we should try.
I’m of the first generation that grew up on rock and roll. Our parents thought that music was from the devil. Did it turn me into some sort of druggie, sex fiend? Nope. I just liked the tunes and the fun lyrics. My own children have been allowed to read and watch anything of their own choosing. They have all learned on their own that much of the raunchy stuff is boring. That a lot of the lame content of TV is worthless. They are all good, moral, responsible people, who know when it is appropriate to be respectful and polite, and when it might be okay to let loose a few swear words (for example, at the referee on TV).
My own books include white supremacists, hate crimes, teen pregnancy and abortion, abuse, death, a gay characters. They also include large doses of hope, caring, love, and growth. As do all the books I know and love that are often on the banned list. That is why I hope at least one of my books makes it to the banned book list.