Since 1982, the last week of September has been designated Banned Books Week by the American Library Association. Books for children (especially young adults) are banned by parents, libraries, and schools for issues such as race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental illness, and disability. Nowadays, though, adults are encouraging each other to open difficult conversations on uncomfortable topics. Shouldn’t they also have these conversations with their children? Young people are more aware than adults give them credit for, and more ready for hard discussions than their parents may be.
One of the problems with the idea of banning books is that the notion of “offensive material” is different for everyone, and for different reasons. For example, both the Harry Potter books and the Bible have been banned for religious reasons even though they are obviously very different books.
I remember one day twenty years ago when I was shopping in a bookstore with my children. My eleven year old son, eyes shining, clutched a super thick book to his chest and said, “Mom, I have to have this book!” With such an enthusiasm for reading, I didn’t care what the book was. I bought it. It was the first volume of the Harry Potter series, and it sparked his love for reading.
At one school where I taught, I read The Watsons Go To Birmingham–1963 aloud to my students. The book is a Newberry Medal winner that I’ve always enjoyed because of the relationship between the brothers and what the events depicted do to the family. One of my students, desperate to read ahead, asked our school librarian if we had a copy in the library. The librarian responded, “Oh, I would never have that book in my library.” The student was very confused. When I later talked to the librarian about it, she said the book contained bad words. Forbidding students to read a Newberry Medal winner because of a few swear words was wrong. When I read it aloud, I skipped the swear words or joked, “Oh, I can’t say that.” My sixth graders knew what I was talking about. It didn’t affect their enjoyment of the book, or our discussion of it.
Discussion is the key to controversial topics. My sons and I went on to read the entire Harry Potter series. We discussed the characters, the plot, and the details as we went. Through discussions, I was able to model for my children how to read a fantasy book that’s not real and poses no threat to their real world. I know others don’t feel the same way, but my job is to teach my children to think about what they read. Now that they are adults, they don’t always agree with my interpretation of books and events, but they are able to draw their own conclusions based on a wide base of reading.
The question to be considered is who kids’ books are designed for. Should these books be aimed at adults who are gatekeepers of their children’s reading, or to the kids themselves? Kids today have a much wider experience of mental illness and sexual orientation, subjects that existed but were never discussed when I was younger. Because of my experience, I am ill informed. That makes me reluctant to discuss certain topics because I don’t want to offend anyone. I never wanted my children to learn about these things only from their friends or books, either. Being ill-informed is a bad way to begin a conversation. When I read Thirteen Reason Why, by Jay Asher, I was horrified at the notion of a teen suicide victim leaving behind recordings for those who wronged him. When I discussed it with two young ladies who liked the book, I found out that bullying and depression were much more common in young teens that I was ever aware. They were ready to learn about how to handle these topics, and I wasn’t ready to talk about them.
When I taught sixth grade, we always had a Growth and Development Week in the spring where we talked about the reproductive system. We separated girls and boys, but they all got the same material. It was always a highly uncomfortable week for the kids. I told them it was a good time to open discussion with their parents about these private things so that later, when they needed advice, they felt more comfortable talking to a parent. Occasionally, a parent signed a note excusing their child from this program. It always saddened me that the student had to leave the classroom during those discussions because their parents didn’t realize they were old enough to learn about it. The other students, in a safe and comfortable environment, asked questions they might be too embarrassed to ask their parents, and we discussed.
Even though I’m admittedly ill-informed on some sensitive topics, I try to read and discuss in order to learn. Adults need to stop making decisions about when children are ready to learn. Instead, teach children to stop reading or log off if the content is too frightening, complicated, or embarrassing. In a year or two, or five, they might be ready, whether parents are ready for that discussion or not. The key to improving attitudes is not banning books, but discussing them, whether we are adults or children.