It’s Banned Books Week. September 24 to September 30 is an annual celebration of the freedom to read.
There’s even a non-profit organization: The Banned Books Week Coalition.
“The Banned Books Week Coalition is a national alliance of diverse organizations joined by a commitment to increase awareness of the annual celebration of the freedom to read. The Coalition seeks to engage various communities and inspire participation in Banned Books Week through education, advocacy, and the creation of programming about the problem of book censorship.”
This year’s Banned Books Weeks theme is censorship, and our right to read. Banning books is censorship. It censors an author’s right to tell their chosen story, in their chosen way. And, by removing a story from the shelves, banning books removes the chance that a reader may see themselves represented in that story.
Books are challenged (banned) for things like profane language and sexually explicit content.
Each year the American Library Association compiles a list of the top ten most challenged books of that year. This year’s list is very heavy on books that include references to or scenes including sexuality or LGBT characters. One book is challenged simply because it has two boys kissing on the cover (note: the title of the book is Two Boys Kissing) and includes LGBT relationships. Other challenges are for profane language.
Of the ten books on the 2016 list, five of them are young adult books (read: for and about teens) and two are adult books. These books were challenged for having profane language (read: swears) and sexually explicit content.
Newsflash – teens and adults are already inundated with this type of content every day. Turn on the radio and listen to the lyrics of the top 40 pop songs. Turn on the TV and watch Game of Thrones, Grey’s Anatomy, or pretty much any popular show. Head to the movies and watch any PG-13/14A /R rated movie. Take a look at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Take a walk through your grocery store and listen to the language the person next to you uses when they stub their toe on their shopping cart, then lift your eyes to the magazine rack.
When parents (yes, very often, the people calling for book bans are concerned parents) challenge the inclusion of a book in their child’s library, they seem to not realize that their teen has already, most likely, been exposed to those profane words or that sexually explicit content. Heck, if they are a teen, they may very well use that very same language when they are with their friends. They may even already be having sex.
So, rather than calling for a ban on a book — how about we read that book with the kids and then talk about it?
I completely understand wanting to protect your child and keep them from reading books that may not be age appropriate for them and be too confusing or uncomfortable for them to process. But the job of a parent is also to teach kids about the world we live in and equip them to be a part of it.
You can choose not to read a book to your child because you don’t agree with the content or think it appropriate for your kid, but to stop others from reading that book too…that’s censorship. And that’s not okay.
And, if your kid is old enough to read something on their own, let them read what they interests them and then be open and available to discuss it with them. Ask them questions about what they are reading. If you don’t agree with the ideas being presented, tell them that and explain why you disagree with those ideas. Open up the dialogue. We’ll all be better for it. And if you don’t want to read something, don’t. It’s that simple. But let’s not stop others from reading what interests them.
The books that are challenged, are often the ones that provide representation to people of marginalized communities and are about the topics we all need to think about.
People don’t often call for banning of popular TV shows, video games, and songs, but they do call for bans on books. Why? Because we recognize that the written word is powerful. The stuff we see everyday in other forms of media, we’re desensitized to it. But books — there’s something about reading long form works that causes people to think, to consider new ideas. So let’s use our brains and talk about these ideas.
Interestingly, nearly all the books on the list are also award winners, many of them of multiple literary awards. These are good books! But they tackle difficult, controversial topics. Topics that need to be discussed. Topics that until recently, were rarely represented positively in books and that are so desperately needed by so many people.
When a kid or a teen reads a book that includes characters that are like them, or situations that are similar to things they’ve been through (even difficult things), they feel valued. They feel known.
And, when kids, teens, and adults read books that include things that are strange to us or different from what we’ve been taught, it may make us uncomfortable, but it will also cause us to think, to ask questions. Reading books with new and different ideas helps us grow. We learn about the experiences of others. We discover our own prejudices. And, we begin to overcome them.
Censoring books censors authors. Censoring books stops readers in marginalized communities from seeing themselves representing in books. Censoring books does kids and teens a disservice. Censoring books stops us from learning and growing as human beings. Censoring books stops us from developing empathy — something that is very, very needed in our world today.
If you don’t want to read something, don’t. If you’re reading something and the language or the story makes you uncomfortable, feel free to stop reading. We all have that right. But banning a book because of sex or swears doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially in teen books.
My challenge to you this Banned Books Week, is to pick up a book that makes you a little uncomfortable. Maybe it has profane language that you don’t like using or hearing. Maybe it has heterosexual sex scenes. Maybe it has LGTBQ+ relationships and sex scenes. Maybe it represents a different worldview or religious (or non-religious) perspective. Try it. Think about it. Discuss it with a friend. Consider why the author wrote that particular story in that particular way. See what you can learn.
Images courtesy of bannedbooksweek.org.