This week was Banned Books week. This event was created in 1982 in response to an unusually high number of challenges to books in libraries, schools, and bookstores across the United States. Those supporting Banned Books week are encouraged to advocate for freedom of book choice for children, as well as speak out against censorship. The American Library Association records times when books were challenged (a request by an adult that the book be removed from the shelves) or outright banned (when a request was actually approved and the book was removed). Most of the requests seem to be regarding vulgar language, explicit content, a threat to family values, or that the content is simply unsuited for the age group that may want to read the offending book.
Lois Lowry’s book The Giver has regularly appeared on the American Library Association’s lists of challenged and banned books, and on her website Lowry has written a response to those who ask her what she thinks about people who try to ban her books:
“I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It’s okay for a parent to say, “I don’t want my child to read this book.” But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let’s work hard to keep it from truly happening.”
The idea that strangers can have a say in what you can and cannot read is unsettling. While they feel they are trying to protect your sensibilities, they are really preventing you from using books to explore worlds that are beyond what your current reality might be. Eventually every reader must leave behind a sanitized and concrete perception of life, and explore new and abstract themes and ethical questions. It is really a part of growing up to take a new and unusual concept, practice critical thinking by forming an opinion about the idea, and be able to debate points with others while still granting them respect. If a few take the liberty of continually speaking for the majority, it feels like a slippery slope where children will have less practice independently deciding what is the best choice for themselves. It is therefore up to a child and his parents to decide if a book is worth reading. Parents have that essential connection with their child, and obviously have the knowledge of whether their child is developmentally or emotionally ready to tackle a book with controversial content. A teacher’s role is to be transparent about what books will be read in the classroom, offer alternatives if necessary, and make sure that a wide selection of books are available for students’ varied interests. Much has been made about teaching today’s children to be empathetic and responsible citizens. In order to do this, we must allow children to freely make their own literary choices, and to explore the world of books with the adults in their lives being guides rather than authoritarians.