Read before banning

Along with the most frequently cited reasons for challenging and banning books—sex, language, violence, “unsuited to age group”—the phrase I most often see in news articles when a book is removed from a library is that the challengers have “not read the book.” In a recent book banning, at Pasco Middle School in Florida, it appears that no one read the book apart from a few students. Just this week, a committee for the school banned The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Jeffrey Solochek reports for the Tampa Bay Times:

Wolff, the Pasco Middle principal, said the book landed on his school’s shelves in October as a supplemental purchase because the school hadn’t spent all its materials funds. He said an assistant principal and a teacher picked it based largely on their knowledge of the PG-13 movie of the same name and the publisher’s description.

Later, Solochek writes:

Neither person [who challenged the book] read the book. Neither did the long-term substitute teacher, a retired district educator, who assigned the novel to her class of 22 children without any descriptions or warnings to the children or their parents.

Wolff said the teacher had only partly read the book before handing it out, and then notified him later that there might be concerns coming from parents. That came about the same time that parents began complaining last week.

Usually, reports of book challenges and banning send my blood pressure rising, but this one had my eyes rolling, too. Librarians and library staff, in order to defend these books, we need to know what we’re defending.

When I see notes that challenges have not read a particular book, but objected to specific passages or references, I am reminded of the importance of reading before discussing something. After all, content might be king, but context is emperor. As Chbosky himself put it:

“The entire book is a blueprint for survival,” Chbosky told last year. “It’s for people who have been through terrible things and need hope and support. The idea of taking two pages out of context and creating an atmosphere as perverse is offensive to me — deeply offensive.” (qtd. in Solochek)

Without understanding the context of the “offensive” content, it’s impossible to have an intelligent discussion of what the book is really about. Because no one at the Pasco Middle School read the book (except, possibly, some students), I worry that the continuing debate over the book will miss the importance of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. So much of young adult literature, especially the classics, are books that provide “hope and support,” as Chbosky puts it. The teen years are a tough time for so many reasons and taking away a book that can help teens process the issues in The Perks of Being a Wallflower just removes one more useful resource.

I also sincerely believe that if potential book challengers actually read their targets from cover to cover before they try to get the books off the shelf, they will realize the value of books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A book that is still read almost 20 years (or more, for some books) after it was published is a book that still teaches and comforts; such a book deserves a place on library shelves.


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