“With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Today, babies, we celebrate Banned Books Week (I am aware, since it is Thursday, that the week is almost over. Just go with it). If you are new to celebrating Banned Books Week, you can check out two very helpful websites to find out more: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks and http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/ Trust me, they are worth the click.
My students always ask why it matters to be aware of Banned Books Week. To them, they read what they want to read (if they read at all, unfortunately) and the discussion ends here. I always tell them, "I wish it were that simple." But it isn't, so we must note this week, and its significance, every year. Books are challenged, judged and categorized every day - usually by those who have never read the book. It is one idea to dislike a book because you have read it; it is an entirely different idea to hate a book because of what you THINK it might contain. Growing up, my parents never censored my reading. They didn't go out of their way to give me age-inappropriate books (although I probably should not have read The Shining in my preteen years - I found a copy of it on my grandmother's bookshelf and read it secretly between my classes), but if I wanted to read something challenging, my mother would read the book with me and then we would discuss the book together. I could ask my questions and if she didn't have answers, we would try to figure them out together. Our tradition continues to this day. She has provided me with great books to read, and I return the favor whenever I can. I am well aware that today, kids can find tons of inappropriate information online and parents (and teachers) cannot keep up with conversations and Q&A's.
However, this does NOT, under any circumstances, allow someone to ban a book. Ever.
To ban a book is to make someone afraid of knowledge. To ban a book is to make a problem that doesn't exist. To ban a book is to challenge our First Amendment rights. To ban a book is to set a poor course for the future. To ban a book is to undermine its purpose, which is to create an awareness of a world bigger than yourself. My great-uncle always says, "Read everything. Even if it's trash. You still learn something." And while I find some books to be trash (Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, I am looking in your direction), I would never support banning them.
The problem is that we don't read. Libraries are filled with books, but they aren't organized to their demographics. The librarians at my library aren't helpful and are often cranky when they have to do their jobs. Most will tell you that they don't read (I was scolded a few weeks ago for taking out "too many books"). This is an issue for me because there is a time and place (and age) to read certain books. Yet I can find Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye in the YA section. This books is brilliant; it is well-written, and it is a must-read. However, a thirteen or fourteen-year-old would not understand its depth. Nor would we want them to. But groups hear of a book's content and suddenly everyone should lose their chance to be exposed to the book's message. This is my problem: we are perpetuating the fear factor that books are dangerous.
Well, books ARE dangerous - but, like all weapons, they are only dangerous in the wrong hands.
Our second problem is we glorify the authors who don't deserve our attention, and criminalize those who deserve our respect. I call this the "Fifty Shades" problem: it isn't a black and white issue, but the "shades of grey" are usually associated with book sales and public fervor. Fifty Shades of Grey is listed on the challenged book list as containing "offensive language" and content that is "sexually explicit." This is true, but I would advise everyone to avoid reading it due to its bad grammar, horrible storytelling, boring characters, a nonsense love story, lack of a strong narrative, predictable plot points, and making light of a sexually violent relationship. The key word to this example is "to advise." I would tell a friend or a student to avoid this book because of the above mentioned reasons. However, if they choose to read it anyway, they should be able to do so without consequence. In contrast, you have a fantastic YA novel called Looking for Alaska by John Green that focuses on issues of love, fear, courage, death and how all of these prompt us to make our decisions, but this book is challenged for the same reasons as Fifty Shades of Grey. The two do not belong in the same group, yet on paper they are the exact same read. We should all be bothered by this.
Our next problem is we allow others to make decisions for us. If my child wanted to read Captain Underpants (another book that is challenged frequently every year), and I am unfamiliar with the series, then I would make it a point to read the books before my child. This would allow me to determine if the book is age appropriate. If it isn't, I would wait a few more years when I know we can have an educated conversation together. Allowing schools, media outlets, and other people (who don't know us or our families) to make our reading decisions is leading us down the wrong path. Would we ban the VMAs because every year a young pop artist (usually female) gives a sexy performance? Would we ban a TV show because it contains "offensive language," "violence," or material "unsuited for age groups?" Obviously, the answer is no because too much money would be lost. So why are books on the chopping block? Why are we demonizing an activity that provides us with a stronger worldview, a well-rounded vocabulary, and a chance to find answers to difficult questions (plus, reading burns more calories than watching TV...just sayin'). Statistically, the majority of people who seek to ban or to challenge books are parents. Most of time, I feel it is because they read or hear something from someone and didn't take the time to look up the information themselves. I know we live in a busy world, but losing the freedom to read is more important than showing off another selfie on your profile. Trust me, no one cares where you are going for dinner tonight.
Every year, we celebrate Banned Books Week in the hopes that next year we won't have to celebrate Banned Books Week. It isn't a holiday but a constant battle to save those who view books as a destructive force. If we foster an open-mindedness to reading, perhaps we can liberate all forms of literature. Perhaps bookstores will feature more readers than shoppers looking for board games, coffee, or to kill time before a movie. Our culture is encouraging ignorance because it looks cooler and it is less work than making informed and intelligent decisions. I will be the first to tell my students that intelligence is hard work. But it's always, ALWAYS worth it in the end.
The official website offers a list of banned books that have helped shape America (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/censorship/bannedbooksthatshapedamerica). Some may surprise (i.e. Where the Wild Things Are) and some may not surprise (i.e. To Kill a Mockingbird). Without these books, would have lost valuable lessons and icons in our nation's short history. We need to give more books this chance.
Read a banned or challenged book. You may like it, or you may hate it.
But at least you can say you read it.