banned books week - image of books stacked behind a restricted section sign

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first entered the scene, I wasn’t allowed to read it.

I was nine years old and my parents, as most parents do, had some control over what I read. My mom had heard that there were some questionable things in the Harry Potter books and so decided they were not books I should be reading. Essentially, she banned the books from our home.
To be honest, I really wasn’t all that bothered. I had no desire to read a book about wizards and witches. At that point in my young reading life, I preferred books about princesses and romances and girl detectives. Even then, I loved reading books about girls doing cool things. And all I knew about Harry Potter was that it was a book about a boy wizard. It didn’t appeal to me.
As I got older, and some of my friends became potterheads, I slowly came to the realization that I should check those books out for myself. And I fell in love. I really enjoyed them. They weren’t just about one boy! They were about a whole school and had some awesome kick-butt girl characters too.
As my parent, my mom had every right to control what her nine year old child read. Not wanting your child to read a particular book (or watch a certain movie) at a particular stage of life is called parenting. It’s smart. Thinking about what your child will be able to understand and handle is what parents need to do.
But…do parents (and teachers, and books sellers, and librarians, and politicians) sometimes go too far? Books are banned for so many reasons. Should they ever be outright banned? Does it ever actually do any good?

Banned Books Week runs from September 25 to October 1, 2016.

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community; librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types, in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. – American Library Association

Books are banned for all sorts of reasons. Many of them quite silly, in my opinion. Books have been banned for containing anything from a swear word to sex. Books have been banned because they depicted two people of different skin colours (or rabbits of different fur colours!), different religions, or the same gender falling in love. It might seem like banning books is something that only happened “back then”. But sadly, books are still banned these days.

Banning books is about censorship, plain and simple. It’s about fear of something different.

Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries [around the United States]. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. –

Any instances of nudity, profane language, racism, religious themes, fantasy, and sexuality in books are often challenged. Especially when youth have access to the books. Usually, this is because parents or teachers want to protect children.
I get it.
Your job is to protect your kids.
But your job is also to teach your kids about what the world is like and how to live in it. And, how to think for themselves and make their own decisions.
And that means they need to learn about things that may be uncomfortable. For you. And for them.
Reading about poverty is uncomfortable. It’s different. But we don’t usually ban books about poor people being poor. We ban them when they mention the other things that people living in poverty often experience – violence, substance abuse, profane language, sexual assault. We ban books that give us insight into how other people live, speak, think.
We ban books when they give us too close of an insight into what other faiths believe and what people of other cultures and colours and sexual orientations experience every day.
How is this a bad thing?
Yes, it may be uncomfortable. Yes, it may lead to difficult conversations.
How is it a bad thing to allow your kids to experience someone else’s life from the comfort and safety of your sofa. With you there to discuss the differences, the why’s and the how’s?
It’s not.
In fact, some of the most banned books have actually been the books that you studied in high school and that your kids now read and discuss in those same classrooms. Books like

  • Tom Sawyer
  • 1984
  • The Bridge to Terabithia
  • Charlotte’s Web.

(Yes, you read that right. Charlotte’s Web, that cute little book about pig’s friendship with a spider was banned in 2006 for having talking animals (“blasphemous and unnatural”) and passages about death.)

And guess what? It’s not just the classics that use outdated terms or are deemed immoral for having a black  bunny and a white bunny get married that are banned.

Books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have been banned in schools.
Because they deal with difficult subject matter like death, child abuse and child violence. Because they mention things like magic and witches. Because some parents don’t think they are appropriate for their kids.
Your kids are going to read them. The more books are banned, the more popular they become. There are anecdotes galore of sales skyrocketing when a book is challenged.

Do yourself and your kids a favour: read these books that concern you and scare you. Read them. Then talk about them. What don’t you agree on? What makes you uncomfortable? Why?

By opening up the conversation, we will do so much more for our society than banning things. We all know banning things doesn’t work. It never does. Tell someone not to look up and what do they immediately do? Look up.
If a book is popular, it’s popular for a reason. It resonates with someone.
I have a friend who worked in a small religious high school. Her students didn’t like to read. Why? Because all the books in the school library were censored. They were safe. They were boring. But when my friend leant a student her copy of The Hunger Games, the students realized how fun and interesting reading could be. And the class discussions opened up. They talked about right and wrong. They talked about political structures. They talked about violence and why it doesn’t work. They talked about how this book made them feel and why they thought it made them feel that way.
Reading difficult material isn’t for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we should ban it. It means we should equip ourselves and our kids to discern which books are appropriate for ourselves.
And the tough stuff, the different-and-kind-of-scary-or-against-what-I-believe-stuff, we should try to read it too, for the sole purpose of understanding others and being able to develop informed opinions.

So, this week, pick up a book that scares you. Try out a banned book with a friend and talk about it.

Read. Discuss. Learn.