Happy Banned Books Week, darlings! This is my favorite literary week of the year. Held during the last week of September (9/21 through 9/27 this year), Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read. Librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, bloggers, and readers share information about the history of book banning and support the freedom to seek out and express ideas, even if they are not popular.
Although the US prides itself on freedom of expression and decries censorship, things can get a little dicey when it comes to school curriculums. Should students be exposed to books that present ideas their parents disagree with or contain themes that are too mature, violent, sexual, etc? These questions crop up every year as parents challenge the material their children are required to read in school.
Earlier this year, Sherman Alexie’s YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was pulled from the curriculum in Idaho schools. Parents objected to its foul language, reference to masturbation, and “anti-Christian” sentiments. This is just one episode out of many in which people try to control the books other people read. Obviously, it’s a problem. It’s one thing to make decisions for your own child; a parent probably has a decent understanding of what his/her kid is ready for, and if a book makes a parent OR student uncomfortable, another option should be open to them. But for a parent to say a book shouldn’t be read by any one else’s children is censorship. It’s arrogant and narrow minded. And in my opinion, the books parents want to ban are the ones students would benefit most from reading.
I can’t speak for Alexie’s novel, but I was furious when parents demanded Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park be removed from a Minnesota school library. They criticized the book’s foul language and sexual themes, calling it “dangerously obscene.” And yet, I think this book would be relatable to many high school students. It features an overweight girl with a tough home life and a boy who wears eyeliner; they’re both misfits, and yet they find the kind of love that most kids their age DREAM of. It shows teens that they can be themselves, and someone will love them. That’s not a thing we should “protect” them from. Sure, Eleanor and Park have some sexy times. SO DO REAL TEENS. Let’s not freak out about it. We know abstinence education doesn’t work. Instead of banning a thing, use it as an opportunity to start a meaningful discussion with your teen.
(P.S., Banning a book only makes kids want to read it more! And they WILL find a way to read it, whether they’re “allowed” to or not.)
Most of my favorite books have been banned or challenged, and that’s not a coincidence. In my opinion, the best books are the ones that challenge our beliefs or make us think about an issue in a different way. They show us perspectives that are different from our own, and that is important. These books have the power to make us more empathetic humans, if we can only come to them with open minds — if we’re willing to listen without judgement.
The books that make us uncomfortable can teach us really valuable things about ourselves and the world around us. Instead of being offended, we should ask ourselves WHY we are having such a visceral reaction. What is our stance on a topic, and where is the author coming from? Can we reconcile our differences in opinion? If yes, wonderful! If not, have we at least learned something new and valuable about the world? Probably.
So open your mind, pick up a banned book, and let it rock your world.
Check back later this week to learn about my favorite banned books — why they’re banned and why they should be read!