This week the American Library Association published 2014’s list of most banned and challenged books. Topping the list is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. That means many parents want it off required reading lists and out of middle and high school libraries. They want to protect kids from reading the “wrong” books.
Now, I don’t care for Alexie’s sake. He wins. His heartbreaking, hilarious, and honest book will keep selling. It will get read. Because it’s good, but also because of book banners. Do they seriously not get that?
As a former kid-who-reads, I know for a fact kids will read those wrong books, the ones parents wish they wouldn’t. My eyes still burn from early exposure to some naughty books my mom kept in her bedroom closet. That bumped them to the top of my must-read list. (Sorry, Mom.) Note to self: Move smut books to shelf next to XBox. Kids won’t look there.
And when a bookstore clerk refused to sell me Forever, it only made me more sure I had to read it. Published in 1975, Judy Blume’s novel still makes regular appearances on frequently challenged lists.
For the record, I want kids to have full access to innocent, fun books. Mysteries, light romance, comedy. Thankfully, not all kids have it rough, and I’m all for protecting the innocence of childhood when and where it exists.
And for those who do struggle too, escapism is fun and necessary. At one point I gulped down every Sweet Valley High book even though I had little in common with Elizabeth and Jessica.
But kids also need access to the tough, sensitive-issue books. We adults can’t ban the reality that every middle and high school, no matter how gated the community, contains suffering kids. Poor kids, minority kids, queer kids. Abused and molested kids. Anxious kids, mentally ill kids, addicted kids. Kids with no safe person to confide their gender and sexual identity issues. Kids who’ve started to believe an ugly label defines them. Slut. Fag. Retard. Fatso. Psycho. Loser. There are kids who harm themselves, and kids who think about suicide.
Luckily, banned books lists or not, reading kids-who-struggle still kind of win. They have this endless source of relief from the struggle, and so, with or without our help, at least sometimes they find their way to the books they need to read.
So then, if bans or challenges only increase a book’s popularity, why care about these lists at all? Who loses out when certain books don’t make it into school libraries?
The struggling kids-who-DON’T-read.
The ones who drag their feet into the library only when their English teacher forces them. The kids who skip pages and fall asleep reading. The kids who watch the movie instead. The ones who can’t connect the required reading list to their own big issues. That’s when a sensitive teacher or librarian or friend – with access to ALL the books – can make this huge potential difference.
No matter what, not all kids will become joyful, lifelong readers. But as a former kid-who-struggles, I know something else for a fact. Sometimes the wrong book in the right hands at the right time can change a life.