This week is Banned Books Week here in the US. It is an opportunity to bring to light the books, and the messages, that have been challenged, primarily over the past 4 decades, for a variety of reasons. I’ve thought a lot about this issue, started and re-started, written and re-written this post, trying to get a handle on exactly what it means to both sides when a book is challenged or banned. But in the end I will help carry the torch against the banning of books. Does that mean I agree with everything I read? Nope. But I believe in the power of literature to inspire, comfort, motivate, encourage, expose and interest readers.
I have a hard time processing the banning of books. Free speech, one of the strongest ideals held in the Bill of Rights, established in the First Amendment, is a cornerstone value on which our society was established. Banning books means removing access to ideas, thereby limiting free speech. Regardless of personal opinions, the societal ideals we uphold need to be applied universally – we can’t pick and choose which amendments should be adhered to. I’ll never own a gun, and I most definitely do not want my children in a home with a firearm. But I can’t stop others from owning one. Just because someone doesn’t want their child to read The Hunger Games doesn’t mean they can take away that opportunity from my child.
Equal opportunity aside, what is it about banned books that gets everyone so riled up? And why are these books, or any books, so important? Often the banning of books is a way to protect our children from what we have deemed as scary, unfamiliar, or shocking. Reading is way to experience the world, without having to actually experience it. Learning through literature enables readers to branch out, safely. Books help us to think differently, sometimes that makes us uncomfortable, but it is a necessary challenge pushing us to grow. Allowing your child to read banned books gives you the chance to comment and weigh in, imparting your values either in reinforcement or opposition.
I’ve put together 5 reasons that books, all books, should be kept on the shelves.
1.) Literature is a reflection of our society. Reading about someone like you eases isolation and validates your feelings and existence.
The Family Book by Todd Parr (PB) has been challenged because it represents families of all types, some with only one parent, some with two parents of the same sex. How painful and unfair for children in these family groups to never see their life represented – for diverse families make up much of our population. The moral of the book is that all families are special and filled with love – an experience everyone should see validated.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume (MR) is one of the top 100 most challenged books of the 90’s and 00’s. Just like any other 12 year old girl, Margaret struggles with buying her first bra, getting her period, and establishing her identity. What an honest heroine for pre-teen girls to know – and to help them realize that what they are going through is normal. Unless they don’t get to read it.
2.) Books open our eyes to existences different from our own, which increases understanding. Exposure to differing beliefs, lifestyles, and experiences breeds empathy and tolerance.
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle (MR) follows the story of Nate, a Broadway show loving misfit, from his small hometown in Pennsylvania to New York City to realize his dream of auditioning for a role on-stage. I’ve read this one cover to cover and what stuck with me the most was the idea of pursuing your dreams, and realizing you aren’t alone. Nate encounters some interesting characters on his journey who validate his uniqueness. There is also an “appreciate your family” piece that I like, too. Nate, along with his show-biz troubles, also has a minor sub-plot that addresses his current confusion about his budding sexuality. Ending unresolved, is he gay or isn’t he?, the book promotes a compassionate character who can help young readers not feel so alone. But it also creates empathy and understanding for those who, tempted to bully or belittle what they don’t understand, will reconsider in favor of tolerance or even friendship. Click HERE to read author Tim Federle’s thoughts on banning his book.
Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes (MR) is #59 on the ALA list of challenged books for the 00’s primarily because it deals with mortality. Olive and Martha could have been friends, but they never knew it, and now it’s too late. Olive was killed in a car accident and, when her mother gives Martha pages of Olive’s journal that reveal how Olive really thought of Martha, it causes her to rethink who she is an who she wants to be. At it’s heart Olive’s Ocean is a coming-of age story about the loss of innocence and realization of our own mortality. It also examines the idea that we never truly know how we are perceived by others, or what our impact may be on their lives. (Newbery Honor Book)
3.) Imagination and fantasy encourage creativity and originality. They also require us to take a hard look at our own world.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engel (MR) is a fantasy story with a female protagonist who travels through time and space searching for her father. It’s mystery and adventure in a fantasy world. Since it’s publication in 1962 it has been criticized for being too adult, too Christian, not Christian enough, and frankly addressing the battle between good and evil. Paperback Pigeon moment of honesty – I hated this book as a child. It was confusing and I didn’t get it. And that is one of the biggest complaints about it. However, banning something because you don’t understand is prejudice, fear bred of ignorance. I put it down and didn’t read the rest of the series. No harm done. But my sister-in-law loved this series as a girl, and I’m glad she was given the chance to read it. (Newbery Medal Winner)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (MR) is one of the most popular, and most challenged, books of the 00’s. Primary concerns are the use of witchcraft and its direct opposition with religious teachings. I’m going to fall back on the Bill of Rights for this one, #1 in fact not only has the freedom of speech, but freedom of religion, too. Banning access to these books based on religious reasons violates the freedom to believe and practice as we wish. Another opposition – the scary nature of the stories and the characters frequent experiences with death. Dealing with death- of a pet, grand-parent or other loved one- is sadly, a part of life. Reading about it can help children to process loss, before they have to encounter it in real life.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (YA) is violent, graphic, and emotionally draining. In another Paperback Pigeon moment of honesty – I hated this book. Yep. So why should it be on shelves? Clearly it is a created fantasy world, a dystopian society, far fictionalized from our own. Yet, it provokes a lot of thought about our current society. I especially like the idea of the voyeuristic sensibilities of watching the Hunger Games via satellite in all the districts. How does that correlate to our current fascination with reality TV? How far will we go for entertainment? In the insular fictional word of Panem readers see an exaggerated reality, and determine how far it really is from our society.
4.) Historical novels, when taught in context, provide a window to the past. Just as modern literature reflects the values of our current society, classic literature was at one time contemporary – they reflect the world in which they were written.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (YA) is one of the most banned books of the 20th century, and is still on the list of banned books today. Why? Because it’s deals with racism. Of course it’s about racism – and tolerance, and understanding the weaknesses of the human condition and societal influence on morality. It’s about doing what is right, and just, against adversity. Using literature to teach about the inequity and injustice of racism, means that racism will have to be examined, addressed, and refuted. Not ignored. Set in 1936, published in 1960, To Kill A Mockingbird, when read in historical context, opens minds to how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go. (Pulitzer Prize 1961)
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (YA) has been banned for its open and honest portrayal of teenage adolescence. First, it should be open and honest – it was her diary after all. Secondly, when placed in historical context, that is what makes it so compelling and important. Anne is just another pre-teen girl (see Margaret, #1 above) so she is identifiable to readers. Yet what she is experiencing at the hands of the Nazi regime is unimaginable. This book has humanized and personified the Jewish experience during World War II for young readers since it as first published in 1947 (English version 1952).
5.) Early readers don’t come to the table with an understanding of societal constraints. Adults teach those, often too early and unnecessarily.
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (PB) is banned primarily because the main character, in a dream sequence, is illustrated naked. I’ve read this book to many preschool aged kids and they don’t ever seem to dwell on this. “He’s dreaming so he doesn’t have clothes” or “Isn’t he cold?” Older kids and adults are the ones uncomfortable with this because society has taught us that our bodies should be covered (and, yes, I highly encourage wearing pants to the grocery store), but by placing those constraints on a preschool age group, and book, we deny children the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful story.
And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell & Justin Richardson (PB) is probably the most challenged book of the late 00’s. It’s based on the true story of a male penguin couple at the Central Park Zoo who were given an egg to raise. Although a great story for children of same-sex couples to see their situation mirrored in literature (see #1 above), it can also help other children gain understanding and empathy for differing family groups (see #2 above). Many children just want to read about penguins. Sometimes grown-ups think too much.
I strongly encourage handling topics in an age-appropriate manner, reading and discussing along with your child, or pre-reading middle-reader/young-adult book choices so that you can be ready to openly answers questions or concerns. Even though it requires work, effort and time, and sometimes saying no, it all comes down to parents being responsible for guiding their children’s literature choices. Just don’t try to guide my children’s choices. You can leave that up to me.
• For a list of banned books check out the American Library Association.
• Check out the Paperback Pigeon pinterest page on banned books:
• Concerned about what your kids are reading? Common Sense Media provides reviews and age suggestions– compare their reviews with books you’ve read so you can decide if you agree or disagree with their ratings. Then you can refer to their reviews to help guide your child appropriately.
• Or visit your local library – many have displays up this week for Banned Books Week!