When I was in grade school, I went to check out the novel, Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace. I’d seen the movie, already, so it wasn’t as challenging as it might otherwise have been, for a kid my age. The librarian would not let me check it out until I read her a passage and explained what was going on. She only wanted to be sure that I would understand what I read, and I was proud to prove my reading skill and walk out of the library with that book!
When my daughter was in middle school, she came home and told me that Fahrenheit 451, which I may have suggested to her as a good book for free reading time, was banned at her school, and students weren’t allowed to read it. My first reaction was disbelief. My second was to grab my keys and take her on a field trip to Barnes & Noble. There, we found a copy of Fahrenheit 451 and I went into “subversive mom” mode. “Take this to class and bring it out during free reading time. If anyone gives you a hard time, have them call me.”
I’ll admit to a smidgen of disappointment when the phone didn’t ring. Later, I learned that the book wasn’t exactly banned. It just wasn’t available for her to check out of the school library. I’m still not clear on whether they thought it was age-inappropriate, or simply did not have a copy to loan her at the time. But a tradition was born – an annual shopping trip to Barnes & Noble to buy something from the “banned and challenged” table during the annual Banned Books Week.
Censorship comes in many forms, even in a country that enshrines freedom of expression in its Constitution. It comes when we judge our own ideas not worthy of sharing. It comes when we tell family and friends, “Oh, let’s not talk about THAT.” It comes from the workplace and the community and the church.
Books expose us to ideas that are not our own, not our friends’, not our neighbors’, not our teachers’ or our ministers’. We are free to see books as sympathetic friends or challenging adversaries. But let’s make sure we’re free to read them, and to make those choices for ourselves.
To all the librarians in my life, past, present, and future, who have stood firm against challenges to what I can and cannot read, thank you. Keep up the good fight! I’d shout it from the rooftops, but I know you, you’d probably just smile and whisper, “Shhhhhhhhhhh.”
This week, I’m reading juvenile and young adult fiction in honor of Banned Books Week:
I’m listening to the audiobook version of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Normally, I hate audiobooks. The narrators read far too slowly, or they sound like stilted schoolmarms. Not this one. The voice grew to fit the character. I hadn’t looked to see who the reader was, but it was the author, himself. The book is “semi-autobiographical fiction” and a coming-of-age novel about a Native American teen. It is profane, funny, thoughtful, and insightful by turns. I don’t think I’d have wanted to explain these books to a pre-teen, but unless a kid’s been packed in styrofoam all his life, he’s probably heard worse by sixth grade.
I’m also reading The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. It’s a thoughtful, powerful book that deals with relevant issues of race, police brutality, quiet young people finding and lifting their voices, and coming-of-age. The themes may be upsetting to children and younger teens, but to be fair, they should be more than a little upsetting to everyone, regardless of age. Read it before seeing the movie in a few weeks!
And then there’s Ban This Book, by Alan Gratz. I don’t think it’s on the banned and challenged list, but it is a wonderful book about fourth-grader Amy Anne, who, with her friends, starts a secret banned books locker library in response to the removal of her favorite book of all time, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. The make up ludicrous reasons to ban every book in the library to make a point and to take a stand against censorship, demonstrating that kids can make a difference.