The Wrong and Right of Book Banning

Aside

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.

Please.

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.

Banning Books in Colorado

Just an hour or so away from where I live, there’s yet another case of book banning in progress. A high school English teacher is under fire from some parents to change her reading list. Here’s a post from John Green (who has several books on said reading list) about it.

And here is the reading list in question:

Young Adult Fiction Elective Course (grades 10-12) Book List:

Feed by M.T. Anderson
Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Taken by Erin Bowman
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Will Grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
Paper Towns by John Green
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

To me, this list reads like a dream. Although I’ve always been a reader and even ended up majoring in English, I despised most of my high school English classes, in part because I had to read and discuss books that felt so far-removed from my life that I couldn’t relate. They bored me.

Now I’ve read nine of the books on this list – some as a youth and most much more recently – and each of those nine seems to me a whole lot more relevant and engaging to a high school-aged person than For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Furthermore, I can say with certainty that none of those nine are “profane, pornographic, violent, crass, crude, vile…” as the parents claimed. Some contained violence and profanity fitting the stories, but not more than what is readily available on TV and in video games. In fact, I’ve shared some of these books to my own high schooler.

I also have to wonder what these parents think they’re going to accomplish by challenging this teacher’s book list. If/when I manage to get published, I kinda sorta hope my book finds its way onto a banned/challenged book list. It’s a surefire way to raise interest and increase sales. Lord knows I’m chomping at the bit to get my grubby hands on those ten vile books I haven’t yet read.

Which leads me to wonder…. Maybe these parents are actually very smart. Maybe their kids resist reading, and they want to change that. Telling a teen – hell, telling anyone – he/she can’t do something is going to make them want to do that very thing…. Hmmm…. Crafty, parents. Very, very crafty. Hats off to you.

P.S. If like me, you want to express support for this Colorado teacher, here’s what John Green suggests:

“Please join me in emailing letters of support of the teacher at Strasburg who has heroically stood by her curriculum and stood alone at School Board meetings defending the books. It’s important to keep your letter as civil as possible, even if this kind of thing turns you into a giant squid of anger.

Letters should be addressed “To the School Board” and emailed to StrasburgYALiteratureCourse@gmail.com.”