by Scott Rhoades
This year, banned books week starts today, running from September 30 to October 6.
I admit, I have a problem with the concept of banning books. On the other hand, I recognize that it is not as simple as saying "Don't ban books." As with any art form, there are a number of possible personal reactions to a controversial book. For example, a book that depicts abuse of a child might cause a dangerous emotional reaction in one child who has been abused or has witnessed abuse, while another might find solace and comfort in seeing how a character handles the trauma within the safe environment of a book. As parents, we know our children, and we should have the right to opt our child out of reading certain kinds of books. The problem is, as I said, the book you challenge for your child might be one I want my child to read.
So, what upsets me is when one parent or set of parents attempts to restrict a book from everybody else, whether it's in a school, a library, a bookstore, or anywhere else. I have no desire to withhold controversial topics from my kids, and a book is, usually, a safe way to introduce kids to discussions on racism, sexuality, political theories, and other subjects that often result in challenges. At the same time, if I truly believed a book could harm my child or cause issues based on my child's particular sensitivities, I'd like to be able to opt my child out of that assignment. However, I will never attempt to opt your child out, or to restrict the book's availability to others.
This, unfortunately, is what book challenges are about, restricting books from others because one group of people dislikes it, is offended by it, or doesn't agree with the book's message. That's why I fully support the activities of Banned Book Week.
This year, one of my reading goals was to read ten books that are often found on the ALA's list of most challenged books. I achieved that goal back in June, but continue to go to the ALA lists now and then when trying to find my next book. Here are the frequently challenged books I've read so far, in order of completion:
1. The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien
2. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
3. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
4. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
5. The Giver, Lois Lowry
6. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. The Return of the King, JRR Tolkien
8. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
9. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (This one actually got its author arrested)
12. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
13. 1984, George Orwell
Books on this list have been challenged for containing magic, sexual content, racial subject matter, violence, and religious or political ideology.
I have little doubt than anybody reading this list won't look at some of the titles with disbelief, finding it hard to understand how it could be on the list at all. It also wouldn't surprise me if several readers look at some of the titles and support restricting availability of the book in schools, questioning age appropriateness or whatever. And a few of you might not even want a couple of these books to be available in your child's school library whether your child is assigned the book or not, or even in the public library.
Every one of these books is partially responsible for making this maybe my most amazing reading year ever. Many of them are books I had never read before, and most of them blew me away with their literary artistry and the messages they deliver. To be sure, I wouldn't assign Rabbit, Run or Lolita to a junior high school English class, but I would have no issue whatsoever assigning either one to an AP English class in a high school. Both are amazing books. If somebody tried to make either one unavailable from my local library, you'd better believe I'd raise a stink of my own.
When I see those lists of banned books, especially the ones with details about the nature of the challenges, it shocks me how often people challenge the availability of the book to anyone at all, not just to themselves or their own children. Some of the challenges are silly. Some are well-meaning but misinformed. Others have validity but should remain matters of personal choice. And few people will agree on which challenges fit in which bucket.
By all means, exercise your rights as parents of your children. If you challenge a reading assignment, I hope it will be an informed decision based on more than an emotional response or over-protectiveness, and will be done with careful thought and with consideration for the rights and beliefs of others. I hope it will be specific to your child. I also hope it will take into consideration the teacher's skills at presenting difficult subject matter in a sensitive way. An excellent teacher can present a tough subject in a way that goes far beyond the quality of the book.
My youngest child is 14. There's not one book on my list above that I would not want him to read. (Actually, I'd be thrilled to see him reading anything at this point.) Some of the books might merit extra discussion based on his own sensitivities, and I might question the age-appropriateness of one or two of the books, based on his own level of emotional maturity. But at his age, maturity varies greatly from child to child, and each child's reaction to various subjects can also be quite different. A child who is well equipped to discuss subjects like race and sexuality might have difficulty with violence, for example. My child's reactions will not be the same as your child's for all books.
Controlling access to controversial ideas is a questionable activity, in my opinion, but, as I said, I respect the rights of parents to have a say in what their children read, even if I disagree with them. However, I also believe that attempting to control access to ideas for people who are outside your own realm of responsibility is disrespectful of the rights and beliefs of others, and, frankly, is just plain bad manners.
Remember, if one group is allowed to withhold ideas from another, then sooner or later, it will be a group you support who is told you are not allowed access to an idea that is important to you. That's why we should all be concerned whenever a book is challenged, whether we agree with the challengers or not.
Ultimately, Banned Book Week is about celebrating the freedom to read what we choose, without having our choices restricted by others, whether they are political despots or well-meaning concerned parents.