Banned Books Week and the freedom to read

In case you didn’t already know, it’s Banned Books Week. The top ten challenged books of 2017 include some that I let my kids read, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In case you’re wondering why that classic coming-of-age story might be inappropriate, the reasons are violence and use of racial slurs. Although I am against banning books, the latter reason, which also throws books like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn into question, is worth thinking and talking about.

As was the case with To Kill a Mockingbird, many of the controversies surrounding these books begin in schools when parents take issue with vulgarity, violence, sex, portrayal of gender, or other topics in particular volumes. Homeschooling parents tend to have more awareness of and perhaps even control over what their kids read. To some people, that is cause for criticism, as many of us have been targeted for being “overprotective” or acting as a “helicopter” parent. I tend to think that all parents struggle with decisions about how to raise their children, and dealing with exposure to mature topics in books, movies, television shows, and popular media is part of that.

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I remember one mom who did not want her child to read The Diary of Anne Frank (another challenged book) until she was grown, because the mom remembered being traumatized by reading about the Holocaust as a child. One of my favorite books as a kid was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, so when my eldest was eight I excitedly shared it with her only to see her dissolve into a heap of terror-filled tears after the introduction of the white witch. While leading a reading and writing workshop for a group of tweens I made the mistake of having them read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Two kids, including one of my own, were terribly upset by it. Another homeschooling mom I know who leads literature groups was loath to share Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (also a challenged book) for fear it would be too upsetting. All these examples show that individual reactions are hard to predict, which may be one reason parents try to be careful. Still, I feel that reading a book or seeing a play can’t ultimately do much lasting damage to a healthy child (traumatized children are another matter), especially when the child has a trusted adult to turn to with questions, fears, and concerns.

We tended to read, and subsequently discuss, books like To Kill a Mockingbird with our kids. They also chose their own reading material, of course, which we allowed them to do freely. We were sometimes criticized for exposing our kids to adult or inappropriate material, for example when my son was obsessed with comic books (apparently also on the list of banned books), or when my young daughters performed in a production of the rock opera Tommy. When my 12-year-old daughter became interested in singing jazz she chose her own repertoire, which sometimes included lyrics about smoking, drinking, and being ill treated by men. Criticism came from more than one corner, but we decided to continue to let her choose her own songs to sing.

Looking over the list of banned or challenged books, in addition to those already mentioned I see so many titles beloved by my kids, including Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (yes, really), books by Toni Morrison, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and works by Shakespeare. Some of these books were challenged for issues worthy of discussion, such as the use of racial slurs, while the objections to others were based on plain old fear or ignorance. Whatever the reason, I would not have wanted any of these books to be unavailable to me and my family. My life and the lives of my kids were enriched by them on so many levels. I support Banned Books Week because I believe in not only the freedom to read, but the freedom to choose what to read. For my kids, that meant Bill Peet books, comic books, basketball books, J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy novels, Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and so many, many others. Some material may have been over their heads. Who cares? Like reliable old friends, the books are always there to return to, gathering layers of meaning and understanding with every read. Some material may have challenged them and caused them to think about things they might not have otherwise. Hallelujah.

If you have a chance, take a few minutes to look over the Banned Books Week website. I’m guessing that at least one book you or your kids love has been challenged or banned at some point in time. I’m grateful for the wealth of information there, and the reminder that the freedom to read what we choose, when we choose, is an important right for all of us.



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