Every school year brings a handful of articles reporting book challenges and bannings at various schools across the United States. And every time I see them, it saddens and angers me. Here are a few from the past few weeks:
- “Park City parents upset by Assigned Reading,” by Carole Mikita, ksl.com
- “Lawmaker wants Morrison off Ala. reading list,” by Melanie Eversley, USA Today
- “Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian pulled from school reading list over masturbation mention,” by Ron Dicker, HuffingtonPost.com
When classes started at my university and I resumed giving tours to new students, I made a special point of stopping at the children’s collection for each one. None of the students I was showing around showed very much attention to these books until I mentioned that our collection holds dozens of books that have been the subject of challenges. Then I would see them make a mental note to check them out later.
And I would do it again. I would do it again in an instant.
It might be a combination of factors and experiences, but I am rabidly anti-censorship. (Yes, I even oppose censorship of books I find personally repellent, before you ask.) But I suspect I think this way because of my own experiences as a teenager. I was (and still am, in many situations) a shy person. When I was a teenager, wrestling with all the things that a teenager has to wrestle with on the way to becoming and adult, books were a great comfort to me. They guided me through puberty, reassuring me that I was normal apart from my eccentricities. Books were a safe place to find out about sex and drugs and learn how to cope with bullies and low self-esteem. Judging by the perennial popularity of some of the books on the American Library Association’s lists of frequently challenged books, they make a lot of other readers feel safe to as the learn who they will be as adults.
Teenagers are not kids any more. They shouldn’t be sheltered like children from the ugly things in life, because it’s better for everyone involved if they learn about drugs and the rest of it when they have a fairly solid support system and legal protection. Treating a teenager like a child is like trying to force popcorn back into the kernel. Besides, no matter how good one’s relationship with parents is, I daresay that teenagers would rather find out about sex and masturbation and puberty from a silent book that won’t judge them or worry about them. I had (and still do) a great relationship with my mother, but there was no way in hell I was going to ask her about sex. Both of us would have instantly dropped dead from terminal embarrassment.
From what I remember of those books, most of them were didactic to some extent. They wouldn’t hit you over the head with a moral, but they always ended with acceptance or something comforting. The best books on the banned and challenged lists will teach you without you realizing you’re being taught. Adults, do you remember the last time you tried to teach a teenager anything?
The way I saw it, books were my safety net as I started to cut loose from childhood. Books laid out various scenarios that I could learn from without risking my sanity or my health. And I made it through my teenage years fairly unscathed. I’m now a functioning, voting, tax-paying member of society, partly because I had the freedom to learn about the world on my own.