A Banned Books Week Manifesto

Starting tomorrow, libraries across America (and my library) will celebrate Banned Books Week.  It’s a celebration of the freedom to read, a celebration that people have the right to read what they like.

This year’s focus? Young Adult books, a commonly banned or challenged genre, mainly because the content includes violence, or sex, or drugs, (or sorcery, or religion, or profanity, or communism).

As an avid reader of YA lit, I can appreciate that there would be challenges to these texts.  I know that challenging books comes from good intentions, from the desire to protect a child.  I understand that reading about sex (or whatever objectionable content there may be) may be difficult for an adult to condone.

However, in my role as a youth librarian, I cannot allow a book with a serious theme to be removed from a library.  In fact, removing a book because someone finds it objectionable is the worst possible thing we can do to our students.

Now, I’ve found in my research about banned books that “objectionable” is a very broad word.

Take, for instance, the Captain Underpants series, one of the most banned children’s books.  There is no sex, no drugs, not much violence, but it was still challenged around the United States for being “unsuited to age group” and “encouraging disobedience.”  Harry Potter had a similar challenge, “a masterpiece of satanic deception” because the characters were liars, thieves and witches.  Harry Potter was so popular that this type of challenge resonated across the globe, being banned in other countries for violence, and even being called too complex for children.

Say what you will about Harry Potter, but those books got generations to enjoy reading again.  They were able to entice reluctant readers into books, and still have that ability.  John Green, he who has had almost ever books challenged somewhere, has a cult following of readers.  The Giver, Persepolis, Perks of Being a Wallflower… just a few more examples of immensely powerful and popular books trying to be kept from reach.

These books seek attention from us.  They have an intense power.  Maybe their objectionable content is part of that power, but it is hard to say.  People who try to ban books are forgetting that despite this content, this kiss or this swear word, the book is still teaching empathy and understanding.  At the end of a book, teens talk about their reactions to the characters and the emotions, not just the number of swear words and the sex scene.

Even books that seem to have no value, the ones that I call popcorn (a nice snack, but not really a meal), can still teach us about empathy and communication.

I say this from personal experience.

When I was a kid, I liked books.  After I read Goosebumps and Dear America, I moved on to romance novels.  First, I read romances for teens, and then I moved on to romance novels for adults.  As a teenager in high school, I read through the library’s entire romance section (in two different towns).  I remember that the librarian in one of these towns was not remarkably supportive of my reading choices, but my stubbornness overcame that.  I collected romance novels.  My bookshelves were right next to my bed, and included titles stacked in every available place.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many novels I’ve read, how much time I’ve spent lost in some formulaic story.  I know the ending to every story from the cover.  I can predict the majority of character traits within the first paragraph.  I am fully aware that these books are not mind-expanding fiction.

However, there is the occasional new vocabulary word, the cadence in reading the dialogue, the clarification of an emotional reaction, and the practice for reading a more complex book.  There is a benefit there.  I was allowed to read and collect romance novels anywhere and everywhere.  My mother (still) disapproves, but that’s never banned a book from my hand.  That may be, in fact, why this issue is so crucial to me.  If I hadn’t been allowed to read romance novels, would I still be a librarian?

It’s an odd thing to say, really.  Perhaps I would have found another genre (mystery, perhaps, or horror, because gore is less a problem sometimes), or perhaps I would have stop caring about books.

Either way, the content rarely detracts from the value or reading.

Graphic novels have similar, if not worse challenges.  They’re banned even more often than YA books, and the most banned and challenged book of this year: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has graphics and images inside.  Captain Underpants, with its graphics of boys in underpants, scared the adults into action.

I, too, lacked appreciation of these books, and comics and manga, until quite recently.  I didn’t understand them, thought they were even less classy than my romance novels.  Fortunately, a YA literature class brought me stunning examples of graphic novels.  I took several books home with me for Christmas, with even more on CD for the 14 hour drive (not all graphic novels, obviously).  After finishing Maus I, I explained the premise to my mom, and she picked it up and read while I finished Maus II. This is amazing to me because I’ve never seen her read fiction.  The newspaper, sure, especially on the way to the crossword puzzle.  But a novel?  Only Maus.

She read both that day, and it opened up a conversation.  I also read books during that vacation about lesbians, high school secret societies, gossip, and vampires.  The reading brought questions that I wanted to ask my mother about, and I did.

I think about this when it comes to books, particularly YA books.  I’ve learned communication for books.  I’ve learned about emotions.  I’ve asked questions of myself and others, of the world around me.  I asked questions I didn’t know I would have.  With graphic novels, we’re able to consider the vision and the plot both.  We’re able to discuss serious issues in an even deeper way.

Look at the dramatic differences in artwork between these three stories: American Born Chinese, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and Smile.  These books invite this conversation, in a way that you can only experience if you allow yourself to read them.  And they enhance visual literacy in the very best way.  Banning these books that kids are reading is detracting from the core principals of the IB and the core principals of education.  This content is still very valuable, even if you don’t agree with everything that every character is doing.

A long as a child is reading, the content doesn’t really matter.

They can read manga, or romance, or fan fiction, or John Green, or anything.  Whatever they are reading helps them to get into a story, helps them see a new perspective.  It’s scary to allow that freedom for them, to allow them to find themselves, but reading can give them new solutions to problems.

If they read about drugs, maybe they see that it’s not worth it, or that they should exercise caution.  They may read a book that features a normal boy who happens to be attracted to another boy, and realize that they are also attracted to boys.  They may read Harry Potter, where the main character has some serious issues with authority (seriously, did he ever follow the rules?).  Despite this, they may see that some things are worth fighting for, and that protagonists are rarely (and shouldn’t be) perfect.  Characters have flaws, but books help you realize that you can make those mistakes and still develop integrity.

Most importantly, books give you the opportunity to ask questions you didn’t know you had.  Books make you ask questions of yourself, your people, and your world.

Recently, some adults have said the same things to me.

“Well, how do we know a book isn’t too advanced for a kid?”
“What if a kid checks out something that they won’t understand?”
“What happens if there’s violence in a book and they take it the wrong way?”

Kids get things.  Kids are sensitive little humans.  They know that violence isn’t the way.  They know when they can ask a difficult question.  The online media is rich, and they can find anything.  Banning one book with violence doesn’t change the fact that the news is violent, and just takes away another opportunity to process that.  Banning a book with curse words doesn’t mean you’ll prevent a kid from cursing.  Banning a book because of sex tells a kid that their sexuality doesn’t exist yet, or that their feelings are unnatural.  We cannot take away the books that are dealing with these issues.

If it is too advanced, the child will likely abandon it.  If it’s an issue that they are ignorant of, they’ll learn about it and deal with it, or talk with their friends about it, but they’ll find a way to understand if they’re intrigued.  Have some faith in the child, and let them surprise you with their sensitivity.  Give them a little credit, and let them read.

Happy Banned Books Week!

Originally from Blog

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