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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Banned Books Week Needs Some Re-thinking

By Cynthia Light Brown

First, some notes:

1. As always, but particularly in this case, the following represents my opinions, and not those of the rest of the Rt. 19 bloggers.

2. I love librarians and teachers. For both me and my kids, librarians have been extremely helpful in choosing books, finding resources for research, and just plain-old discussing books. My kids have had some truly amazing teachers over the years. Librarians and teachers work very hard and have pressures from all sides, including parents who may or may not be reasonable.

3. I’ve never challenged a book, and don’t intend to ever do so. My kids are ages 11, 15, and 17, and it’s really never occurred to me to object to a book they want to read, much less one they’re reading in school. If I had concerns about what they were reading, my approach would be to engage them in conversation (though for movies I have occasionally not allowed them to watch something they wanted to). Books are an important place for all of us, kids included, to explore other perspectives and experiences.

But whenever I see something about Banned Books Week, I mentally roll my eyes. There are a few reasons why:

I think people mis-use the term censorship and banning. Anyone can purchase any book in this country. So if a book is challenged for use in an 8th grade classroom and subsequently taken off the reading list, that book can still be read by people. It’s still available, it’s just not required reading in 8th grade.

I also roll my eyes because I just don’t see this as a big deal. There were 348 challenges last year. That’s for about 130,000 schools and about 50 million students. I know people say that that masks all the times that a teacher simply changed the book so that someone wouldn’t challenge, or never put it on the list in the first place, but it also masks the times that a parent continues to have an issue and just drops it.

But my biggest problem with Banned Books Week is that it actually creates a climate that suppresses the voicing of opinions. The not-quite-said message is that anyone who challenges a book is a lunatic, and books should NEVER be challenged. Even for writing this post I’m a little bit suspect, which is why I felt compelled to state my own personal approach to letting my kids read books.

Most challenges are related directly or indirectly to the suitability of books for kids. Here is the crux of the question for me: Who gets to decide what kids read? (I’m addressing the question of books in reading lists and school libraries—I think the question for public libraries is a different one.) Right now, librarians select books to be in the school library, and teachers select the books that are on required and optional reading lists.

In the great majority of cases, the librarians and teachers do a good job. But what if there’s an exception? On a popular writers bulletin board, someone noted that her child’s 4th grade public school teacher assigned a book about a girl who comes to know and love Jesus. I don’t know what the book is, and whether it has other merits, but it certainly could be a prime suspect for a challenge. Likewise, if a teacher assigned a book to 4th graders about a girl who came to lose her faith, that could also be a poor choice. And even if a book has literary benefits, why can’t parents have input into these decisions? Particularly for books on required lists, having your child read something different is problematic, especially in middle and high school when discussion is part of the class.

So I propose that instead of creating a culture of silence, we should encourage discussion and parents’ opinions. In its current formulation, I think Banned Books Week does more of the former than the latter. How can that change?

1 comment:

  1. I agree that there's a difference between a book being banned and a book not being placed on a required reading list, and that sometimes people lose sight of that.

    I do worry that the current atmosphere can be stifling to those who question a book's appropriateness.

    Thanks for speaking up. It's important that all sides be heard on any issue in a free society.

    And in my opinion, the views of parents ought to be respected by those of us who write for kids in particular—though we may differ with them.