From Harry Potter to classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men, many great books have been challenged or banned in some places over the decades and the American Library Association keeps lists of challenged books each year and you may be surprised some of the novels that pop up on the list. It’s for one reason or another as to why people challenge these but it’s often a case where the forest is being missed for the trees. For instance, people, school districts, or watchdog groups will ban Huck Finn because of the racism and use of the “n-word” but there is nothing about this great novel that glorifies slavery. The whole point of the thing is Huck trying to help Jim (a slave) escape slavery! Furthermore, any casual behaviors by the characters towards slavery is a look at history and captures a very real ideology that shouldn’t be ignored. Looking at our past, no matter how ugly, is vital to learning and growing.
What’s worrying about this practice of challenging or banning books outright is it stops us from having hard conversations that need to be had. Books that contain sex, drug use, racism, or other offensive aspects rarely are shedding a positive light on these issues. People often fail to look at characters or situations in light of these “offensive” acts but see the actions themselves and have knee-jerk reactions to something a character did.
If a student is reading a book where characters are doing drugs or drinking or having sex, rather than taking time to challenge the reader on what they think about those actions, people that are challenging these books simply want to brush negative actions under the rug or hide realities from young readers. Is it good for teens in a novel to do drugs or drink or do something “worse”? Probably not but some may disagree, and that disagreement is okay. Asking that a piece of literature be totally removed as an option is censorship, which is bad enough, but it’s also missing an opportunity to ask questions like, “Why are these characters doing this?”
Is your child reading a book where the characters are, for instance, doing drugs? Maybe you ask, “Why do you think they’re doing that?” Are the characters rebellious hellions? Are they using it as a way to cope with something? Are they giving in to a social norm? Once you figure that out, maybe then we explore if their reasons are okay or if there’s a better alternative to their actions. But of course, this all requires conversing with young readers.
I plan to look closer at banned books this year but when it comes to dealing with groups that ban works of literature, I would suggest checking out this letter by Kurt Vonnegut (http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/i-am-very-real.html).
Until next time, go read a banned book. This content is supported by emergency dentist in Lakewood, Colorado Dr. Brian Levitin.