In the recent weeks, book banning or censorship has been brought to the center stage in the children's author community. First, John Green's books (not The Fault In Our Stars, so fear not!) have been the target of parental disapproval on the grounds of mature sexual content. More recently, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth was banned as part of the summer reading list in Delaware on the grounds of profanity. The truth soon unraveled when a local news station reported that other books on the list also contained foul language and the real reason that Miseducation was challenged was because the main character is a lesbian.
What was the Delaware School District's solution to this unsavory topic? Abolish the summer reading list all together. You have to admire the courageous decision-making skills of the bureaucrats in elected posts. 😡
While it is completely a parent's prerogative to determine what their children should read within the confines of their own homes, I think it is blatantly wrong to impose those restrictions on other people's children and demand book censorship. As a children's book author, pediatrician, parent, and voracious reader I have many reasons to oppose book censorship. In truth, I feel pity for the children of the parents who lead the book banning wars. Children learn from the behaviors we model much more than by what we tell them. Here is what parents teach their children when they advocate to ban a book:
1. Don't ask me about sexuality, profanity, drugs, racism, religion, or violence. These topics are taboo.
According to Judy Blume's anti-censorship toolkit, the most common objections against banned books are sex, profanity, violence, and religion. Books with LGBTQ themes are more likely to be banned than those featuring straight relationships. The frequent challenge of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian also shows that racism and religious themes that don't feature the mainstream viewpoint are also likely to be placed under fire.
I think that parents who are at the forefront of book censorship are missing out on teachable with their children. They are creating road blocks to important discussions with their tween or teen. When a teen or tween encounters words or concepts with which they are not familiar in a book, this creates a splendid platform for discussion. As as pediatrician, when I am trying to figure out if a teenage patient uses drugs, I first ask about their friends. It gives the teen a chance to talk about the topic without direct confrontation and gives them a chance to gauge me. The same can be applied to books that discuss sensitive topics. If the teen or tween can discuss these issues with the parents in the context of a fictional character, they learn that it is safe to discuss these issues when they hit close to home.
If a parent throws a hissy fit when a fictional character in a book is questioning their sexuality, has a friend experimenting with drugs, or is confused about religion, guess how comfortable their teen or tween will feel about broaching these subjects with mom or dad when it's personal? Allowing your child to read books that feature viewpoints different than yours opens a gateway for discussion on your own family's values and morals. When my daughter, Kara, read Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? at age twelve, we engaged in thoughtful conversations about religion, being yourself, and respecting our bodies.
While I do not encourage parents to act as their child's "friend", it is important to create a safe space where the child feels comfortable discussing the topics that are the most common reasons for book censorship at home. Otherwise, they will look to Google, their friends, or the street to find the answers they seek.
2. I do not think you are an intelligent person capable of forming your own thoughts and controlling your actions.
Browsing through the ALA's list of Most Frequently Challenging Books is amusing, enraging, and sometimes baffling. Captain Underpants has topped the list for the last couple of years for reasons that I cannot possibly fathom. The official reasons are "offensive language, unsuited for age group, and violence" but I don't believe it for a second. My seven year-old son, Tristan, is what I euphemistically call a "reluctant reader". I even blogged about it once. Captain Underpants saved me from throwing myself off the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio because that seemed like a more pleasant option than begging my son to read one more page of any other book. When we discovered this series, Tristan actually read for pure pleasure. Once we added comic books into the mix, we are all golden, safe from certain death.
I am perplexed by other books on the list. Bless Me, Ultima has absolutely nothing to do with Satanism or the occult. The titular woman is the main character's spiritual mentor. She is a "curandera" in traditional Mexican culture and is grooming the main character to be a priest. Ultima, or La Grande, is a beloved, highly-regarded healer in the community who blends the rich indigenous traditions with Catholicism. This is very common in Latin America. If you visit Peru or Bolivia, you will see the seamless marriage of the Catholic religion and Inca traditions. It may not be what the mainstream, Christian, American religions look like, but that does not make them Satanic. Furthermore, a child who reads this book is not going to be swayed into Satanism.
By waging war against books with values, beliefs, philosophies, and traditions that differ from ours we are teaching our children that we think they are mindless morons. We are telling them that they are too stupid and fragile to be exposed to points of view that differ from ours. I almost want to cry at the thought of the children who will not read the stunning pieces of literature that are Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and To Kill a Mockingbird because someone thinks they incite violence and racism. Someone did not really read these books.
Will I forbid Tristan from reading Captain Underpants because I fear he will want to walk around in his underwear? Will I forbid my children from reading the magical masterpiece that is Harry Potter because it is a gateway to Satanism? Of course not.
I promise you that your teen and tween will not want to go out and have sex if they read The Chocolate War (another brilliant read). Instead, this and other books that feature teen sexuality can serve as a platform to discuss the sexual morals you want to teach your children. Believe me, it is easier to talk about these sensitive topics in the context of applying to someone else first. When your child later faces these issues more directly, she or he will remember your lessons and expectations, not those of Robert Cormier, but only if you have had frank discussions.
I recently asked Kara what she would do if I demanded that her school remove a book from the shelves. She looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes and said, "I would do everything in my power to read that book behind your back." Sigh.
Hopefully your children do not have a blatantly rebellious, albeit honest, streak like mine do. The point is that children are not stupid. As in the Miseducation case, soon after the book was challenged, the sales increased. Curiosity will prevail, and they will be more likely to read something that is forbidden.
I realize there are some books that are completely inappropriate for children. I have clearly told my daughter she cannot read the Game of Thrones series (which appropriately is not marketed to teens/tweens) until she is much older because of the graphic sex and violence. But I am not going to threaten George R. R. Martin....primarily because I want him to finish the series already! I am not going to demand the book be removed from the shelves. It is my own responsibility to determine what my children should read or not. Honesty and communication with our children go a long way here.
3. Independent thought is dangerous and must be governed.
Parents who wage war against book teach their children that independent thinking is dangerous and forbidden, and therefore they must establish themselves as the thought police for the masses. They are telling their kids that someone else must determine for the greater population what ideas, words, values, and philosophies are appropriate. The ones deemed inappropriate must be abolished or sanitized.
In this case, I am not talking about the parent who tells their child not to read a certain book, but the parents who take their issue to school boards and book stores. It is one thing to have a discussion with a child about morals and belief systems, and another to impose such models on others.
Are these the lessons you would want your child to learn from you as a parent? Book banning hurts our society as a whole. Parents who wage war against books hurt their relationship with their children. As a parent, teacher, or librarian, speak up when you see this practice occurring in your community. Visit Judy Blume's website for more information and support.
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