Banned Books Week. Have you heard of it? It’s okay to say that you haven’t. Really. Before I went to library school, I had no idea why, each year, at the end of September, everybody suddenly cared about Huckleberry Finn and that cute kids’ book about the gay penguins. When I was younger, I gave the displays at my local library maybe half a glance
on the way up to the teen room, eager to check the spinner racks and pore through the new book section. I never stopped to look at the displays or read the placards telling me why the lovely classic I’d read a couple years ago in school made so many people upset.
So here’s what we’re talking about when we talk about banned books. They are literary works whose presence on the shelf has been challenged (sometimes they’ve been removed), usually because of objectionable content, which could be anything, really – sex, profanity, racism, and LGBT characters are often the culprits in today’s censorship battles. Usually, combustion occurs when children and teens who are of school age are introduced to these ideas/storylines/scenes/fleeting references.
A book is a physical object. It’s got an author, a finite number of pages, two covers. It’s contained. It can be removed. Can we all agree on that? Good. So let’s switch gears and do a tiny thought experiment. Let’s substitute the word “idea” for the word “book.” Suddenly, we’re not objecting to a single, dangerous item. We are objecting to an idea. To a religion. To a group of people.
Most book challenges come from well-intentioned parents. Sometimes the issue is the age appropriateness of the material, and sometimes it’s around the content, alone. Parents can ban books in their own home (and students can take the alternate assignment, the lowered grade, or the missed instructional time). That is 100% their right.
Parents, however, should not dictate what other people’s children are allowed to read and discuss. In fact, the First Amendment kind of indicates that we have the right to select our reading material from the full array of possibilities. Just look at that phrase for a moment: full array of possibilities. That means that if the librarians are doing their jobs right, somebody, somewhere will be offended by what we put on the shelves (and, conversely, somebody will be delighted that we have this material).*
There’s great value in discussion, and books are, by far, the safest route into many of these discussions (i.e., reading and talking about that book the deals with teen pregnancy is
preferable to your teen talking to you about what it’s like to be pregnant). Books are safe spaces to experience new things. New thoughts. New ideas. Different points of view. They are a way to journey back in time and careen far into the future. Books teach us how to empathize with each other, how to stand up for the little guy, and how to recognize the bad guys in our lives (kind of a handy skill to pick up, no?). We experience strong emotion alongside our favorite characters – joy, catharsis, loss, excitement. Books are a safe way to learn about life, without all the painful bumps and bruises.
Books are powerful. They save lives. The Robbins and the Fox libraries have over 200,000 of them. Many, you’ll absolutely love. Some will leave you scratching your head, and there are at least 100,000 that you’ll never ever feel the urge to pick up. Let’s
celebrate Banned Books by preserving each other’s right to pick up (or put down) any book we’d like.
*The American Library Association Code of Ethics says the same thing, but in even stronger language. Check it out and see how completely librarians have got your back.