Littera Scripta

Censors and the Books Kids Love
by Marylaine Block

For the past several years, it's been commonplace for parents and politicians to profess outrage that our schools have not succeeded in getting kids to read at grade level. It seems more than passing strange, then, that when books come along that kids read eagerly, and pass on to their friends, adults start trying to ban those books from schools and libraries.

It's a long and honorable list of books, including Catcher in the Rye; Slaughterhouse Five; Catch-22. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, and other Judy Blume books; the Harry Potter books.

Of course, not all the books kids adore are great literature. It's kind of hard to envision a teacher or librarian going to the mat over any kid's first amendment right to read the Goosebumps series, or even books by Stephen King (though I contend -- see -- that King IS an important author).

But it doesn't matter if the books are great literature or not. The point is, books that speak this powerfully to kids' concerns and fears move kids past their reading barriers, so that instead of reading one painful word after another, and forgetting by the end of the sentence what the sentence was about, they gulp down sentences and paragraphs and chapters whole.

You would think that people who want their kids to read would view such books as their allies, would even thrust them into their sons' and daughters' hands. You would think that parents would have some trust in their kids' judgment, would read the books themselves to try to understand the appeal. If they found their daughters were moved by Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, you would think they would welcome this insight into their daughters' private fears, and use it as a takeoff point for mother-daughter chats about religion, puberty, boys, and social acceptance.

Instead, many parents demand that these books be removed from schools and removed from libraries because of some threat they pose. Often the complaint is about bad language, or portrayals of sexuality. Some books that deal with magic, like the Harry Potter stories, are condemned as satanic.

I'm inclined to think those stated reasons are the "good" reasons, not the real reasons. I suspect the real reasons have more to do with a pervasive sense of disquiet these books arouse, which the censors may not even understand themselves, a sense that these books are a threat to beliefs and values they hold dear.

In which case the censors are on to something, because many of these books are, in fact, deeply subversive. They look long and hard at the world grownups have made, and find it wanting.

Do you really censor Catch-22 because of its language, or because of its unsettling argument that the world makes no sense at all? Do you really censor Judy Blume because of language or sex, or because of her clear belief that young adults are real people with the right to make their own choices?

Do you really censor Harry Potter because of magic, or because the books reveal so many adults to be clueless, humorless muggles? Don't you really censor The Chocolate War because it reveals what ugly compromises adults must often make with their principles? Isn't what is really bothersome in Stephen King the fact that so often, his child heroes are forced to tackle the forces of darkness alone because adults won't do it, won't protect them, won't even admit that evil exists?

I'm willing to believe the censors really do want their children to read. I'm less convinced they want their kids to think. I wonder if ultimately, it's a failure of trust -- they don't want their kids tempted by dangerous ideas because they're afraid that in a fair fight, their own values and beliefs wouldn't win their sons' and daughters' hearts and minds.

Librarians are professionally on the other side of a cultural divide from the censors, because we incorporate into our professional code of ethics the belief in a free marketplace of ideas. If it doesn't bother us that "right" ideas must joust with lesser ideas, it's because we believe virtue will win in a fair fight. Like Mark Twain, in "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg," we believe that you cannot protect people from ideas forever, and the more you try, the more appealing you make the forbidden ideas.

We also believe that children and young adults are real people, just as much our customers as their parents. And when our customers want to know something, our automatic reaction is to help them find out.

That makes it hard for us to understand the censors, let alone sympathize with their fears and reach out to them. And yet it seems to me that if librarians don't make the effort, we are forever condemned to stand in the trenches armed with lawyers, eternally talking not with each other, but past each other.

Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.

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Recommended Books

Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald, Dawn B. Sova, Ken Wachsberger. 100 Banned Books : Censorship Histories of World Literature

Dawn B. Sova, David Greene. Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds (Banned Books)

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