I love banned books. I give them to my kids, buy them for relatives, and recommend them to friends. If a book has been challenged in schools and libraries on the basis “of content or appropriateness,” it’s almost certain I’ve read it. In most areas of my life, I’m a rule-follower, but when it comes to books, I’m a subversive.
Before you go thinking less of me, consider this: banned or challenged books include Green Eggs and Ham; Harry Potter; Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; A Wrinkle in Time; Of Mice and Men; Where the Wild Things Are; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; The Lorax; Little Women; James and the Giant Peach; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Giving Tree; The Giver; Harriet the Spy; Alice in Wonderland; Charlotte’s Web; The Hunger Games; Twilight; To Kill a Mockingbird; His Dark Materials; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Beloved; It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families; and Captain Underpants.
Shocking, right? I had no idea colored food, flying brooms, ruby slippers, a kid in a candy factory, giant insects, the facts of life, and a hypnotized principal were so controversial. Frankly, I can’t imagine a world in which I didn’t spend time with Big Jim and Huck on the Mississippi, or cry when Charlotte died, or wonder what Anne’s life might have been.
I want my children to read all of these stories, too. I don’t want them to shy away from a book because others find it offensive or uncomfortable. I want them to have big, bold minds capable of grappling with contradiction and able to find the beauty in books that use racist, ugly, sad, vulgar, shocking, or dark moments to teach us to be better than the characters on the page.
Banning books that deal with reality doesn’t stop people from cursing and having sex and doing drugs and going to war. Which is why I’d like my children to explore those ideas in books before they meet them in person. I want to prepare them, not shelter them. I want to use books to help them think deeply about relationships, justice, culture, friendship, politics, family, freedom, addiction, choices, love, and loss. I want to broaden their thinking, not narrow it.
Which isn’t to say that I want my first grader to be able to check out Fifty Shades of Grey from the children’s section. Libraries have to balance providing books that are appropriate for a wide range of children with protecting younger readers from material for which they aren’t emotionally or cognitively prepared. Generally, though, I believe our public and personal libraries should be sanctuaries. They should be neutral repositories for all the stories people want to tell, whether we agree with them or not. It’s up to us as parents and readers to help our children choose books and then help them process what they read. We should act as guides for our children, not wardens.
So, I’m going to keep reading banned books. Lots of them. I hope you will, too.
If you’re interested in more information, The American Library Association’s website tracks challenges and provides information about banned and challenged books.