Every September, when Banned Books Week comes around, I get an Oscar Wilde quote running on a loop in my head: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” Every year, when I see the most frequently challenged books that parents have asked be taken off the shelves in their public libraries and their children’s school, I see people who are afraid to engage in hard questions about racism, homophobia, sex, drug use, abuse, and so many other topics that our society desperately needs to talk about. I can understand that these are uncomfortable questions to have, especially with children and teens—but I believe that dodging the conversations does much more harm than good.
I often wonder why people do this. Why do people feel they have the right to control what others think about? Why do they think it’s a good moral thing to shelter children from diversity and difference? For a while, I thought it was because parents were going to great lengths to avoid awkward conversations with their children. I mean, who really wants to talk to their mom and dad about menstruation, let alone sex and cyberbullying and Black Lives Matter? My mom just left a packet of pads under the bathroom sink when I was around 13 and told me to not read The Clan of the Cave Bear until I was older.
Years later—and in fact only a couple of years ago—I was talking to my sister-in-law about how hard it was for her to have a conversation with her own mother about politics. They were both on opposite sides of the liberal-conservative divide. Any time my sister-in-law would question or criticize Trump and the Republicans, things would get heated. When we talked, we wondered if her mother’s defense was a result of feeling that she might be a bad person for supporting their policies. Did supporting racist policies make her a racist? Did supporting Trump mean that she might be sexist?
No one likes to turn the mirror on themselves and see that they have problematic beliefs. Having a conversation with their child about a book about all those uncomfortable topics might reveal that they aren’t as progressive as they thought they were. Or perhaps the increasing prevalence of LGBT+ books or stories about racial violence challenges their ideas about how the world should be.
Which brings me back around to 2021. There seem to be a lot more challenges being issued and a lot more contention over those challenges. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s Banned Books Week time and the media likes to shine a light on libraries every now and then, or if this is yet another expression of America’s cultural wars? I don’t know. I also don’t know how to talk with people who want to take books off the shelf in a way that won’t lead to screaming and picketing. I really wish I did.