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September 26, 2013

Whiteout for Your Brain: Banned Books Week 2013

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What do TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MARGARET and the Harry Potter series have in common? They’ve all been successfully kicked out of school libraries because some parent complained about them. Surprised? Good. You should be. This week (Sept. 22-28) is Banned Books Week (BBW for short) and we’re tackling it head-on here at 20SomethingReads. Teenreads already highlighted a couple of recently banned books here, so I’m going to talk a little more about why things get banned in the first place and why I think certain books get challenged more often than others.

But first, a quick overview. Banned Books Week is a protest against book censorship that started in 1982 as a response to the growing number of books that were being removed from schools and libraries. Parents or other adults would complain about books (this is called “challenging” the book) and then the library or English class would decide whether to keep it or ban it (pressure on the school board usually meant that the book got banned). The American Library Association estimates that since BBW started in 1982 over 11,000 books have been challenged. Even more are challenged and never reported, making the exact number impossible to determine. Books that have been challenged run the gamut from capital-L Literature (THE CATCHER IN THE RYE) to modern hits (THE KITE RUNNER) to juvenile humor (CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS). They get banned for reasons like having “offensive language” (LOOKING FOR ALASKA), being “sexually explicit” (BELOVED) or “racially offensive”(THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN) and, my personal favorite, being “unsuitable for age group” (pretty much everything you read in school). For more information on BBW and to see which books got challenged the most in 2012, check out bannedbooksweek.org.

As you might have guessed, the main reason books get challenged is because adults feel they are inappropriate for the age level they are given/available to. This makes sense in theory. THE KITE RUNNER is pretty graphic. If I were a parent, I wouldn’t want my seven-year-old reading it. That’s perfectly reasonable. The problem is, that’s not the way it happens in real life. No one tries to give THE KITE RUNNER to grade schoolers. There isn’t much risk of your eight-year-old picking SONS AND LOVERS off the library shelf over the next ANIMORPHS. Too many big words there, and not enough aliens. For young kids, kids who are honestly not ready to process certain books, there really isn’t much of a risk of them reading them. Parents and guardians also have a responsibility to know their kids and be aware that there are different levels of maturity in children and some might be ready for material earlier or later than others.

The problem is determining what is appropriate for which ages. In general, I believe most challengers underestimate the maturity of their children. CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS keeps getting challenged year after year for having poop jokes. Grade schoolers love poop jokes. It’s sold fantastically well and if a few moms shake their fingers at Dav Pilkey, well, he has swimming pools filled with money to comfort himself with. BELOVED gets assigned in high schools all the time and is almost constantly challenged for being sexually explicit. Plenty of high schoolers are already sexually active, and if not, I doubt a couple rape scenes are going to make them hurry up. More importantly, high schoolers aren’t kids anymore. They can handle literature that reflects the real world back at them, warts and all. BELOVED is also an extremely well-written novel by a prominent African-American female author and has significant literary and social merit. Education is about expanding horizons, after all. Cutting teens off from material that could challenge them proves far more damaging to their education than having to giggle through a few racy bits.

This is where the “moral outrage” part comes in. A lot of books are challenged because of racial, sexual or violent content that people feel isn’t appropriate. Ironically enough, a lot of the racism complaints are aimed at books like THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN that are extremely anti-slavery if you actually bother to read them. They accurately depict American society at a time when slavery was happening. It isn’t racist to acknowledge that. Sex and violence are (like it or not) pretty central to the human condition. We do them a lot, and devote a huge amount of time and energy (and a couple of industries) into doing them better. Our literature should have them, too. Teens will get to the real world fast enough. They might as well be prepared when they do.

“But,” says my inner devil’s advocate, “But what about books that aren’t well written? There are plenty of bad ones out there. Maybe some of them should be banned.” And it just so happens that number four on the list of most-challenged books in 2012 is 50 SHADES OF GREY. Not to step on anyone’s toes, but this isn’t exactly Shakespeare. But censorship is still censorship, and by banning books, even terrible, horrible books that no one should ever want to read, still sends the message that “we,” whoever “we” might be, knows what’s good for “you” more than “you” do. It’s putting one person’s choice over another’s. In the long run, that’s more damaging than a couple of bad eggs. Much more damaging.

The little nugget at the heart of all of this seems to be that people are uncomfortable with material that deals with the darker parts of human nature. We like to keep things like racism, violence and genocide pushed out of our minds, locked out of our carpools and on the other side of the white picket fence. When it crops up in our books, we squirm away. We’re ashamed of what the pages are showing us. The problem is that if we keep doing that, nothing will change. Our world isn’t perfect, but if we keep our literature sanitized and whitewashed we’re just denying that fact. Censorship doesn’t protect us, it just keeps us in the dark.

So spread the word. Don’t let people tell you what you can and can’t do. Stand up for yourself. Go read something inappropriate for your age group.