It's the most wonderful time of the year... No, it's not time for a string of winter holidays, nor is it the day of candy-coated horror that we call Halloween, but this is still a pretty great time to be on planet Earth. Why? Well, if you didn't catch the title, Banned Books Week (September 24-October 1, 2017) is right around the corner.
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What's Banned Books Week?
Every year, bookish people, libraries, and those who value intellectual freedom and the First Amendment raise their collective voice to pay homage to the books that have ticked people off the most in the last year. Sometimes, when a book comes out, its ideas are so radical that it inspires people to protest its existence. (If you remember all the stink about the Harry Potter series, you know what I'm talking about.)
People who protest these books have the right to raise a big stink, but when their disdain infringes on the rights of others, it's gone too far. Sometimes purveyors of books, publishers, librarians, authors, and teachers get caught in the middle of this. (Neil Gaiman talks about the controversy that boiled up over his Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament in the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Defender.)
Some ideas just aren't good
I don't believe that every book that's ever been written good, but as the Grinch once said, "One man's toxic sludge is another man's potpourri." I don't get to decide what the good stuff is, and that's a wonderful thing. How drab would our libraries be if we were only allowed to read the canon? (Also, just because something is in the canon doesn't mean that it's wholesome.)
Underpinning all of this is the assertion that books are dangerous. Words do have power, and they can inflict harm, but they can also promote healing. Books can help us think about things in new ways. Reading fiction increases our ability to empathize, and it can give us the vocabulary to talk about our experiences. What goes on between those covers is potent stuff. (See what I did there?)
Support the right to read
Whenever I hear that a book has been challenged, I feel that I have to read it. Bad books don't get banned--they just fade into obscurity. Banned books strike a nerve. They must be saying something raw and real if people are willing to make such a fuss. Maybe we should be talking about these things instead of trying to boo them out of our consciousness. When a book is banned, it says more about our culture than the contents of the books.
When I looked at the Top Ten List of Challenged Books for 2016, I noticed that most of the books were deemed too sexually explicit, contained profanity, or featured LGBT characters. I didn't see any books being condemned for depicting violence, but half of the books talked about gay or trans characters. Make of that what you will. It seems pretty telling from this angle.
Yes, I do believe that kids should read stuff that's appropriate for them, but I also argue that we don't give kids enough credit. We have an obligation to help children understand the world. Sometimes a book can offer a great opportunity for that. I am so lucky that I was never told that a book was off limits. My family kept a steady supply of books coming my way no matter what, and I kept reading them.
My grandmother bought me loads of Goosebumps books from the grocery store when I was in first grade. (Goosebumps books were frequently challenged throughout the 1990s.) I read How I Got My Shrunken Head at the age of 6 or 7. It didn't warp my mind, but it did teach me that shrunken heads were a thing. I also remember reading it aloud at the hair salon while grandma was getting a perm. The ladies complimented my reading. My kid brain said, "Hey, I'm good at something. I'd better keep doing this reading thing."
I read Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles in middle school. These probably weren't "age appropriate," but they gave me ways to talk about being different and ways to understand people who felt like they didn't belong. They made me understand things I didn't know.
Since we're all different, it just doesn't make sense to pull a book off the library shelves because a few people disagree with it. We can dislike what someone writes, but we can't take away his or her freedom to write it. Instead of starting a witch hunt, we'd be better served by starting a dialogue.
My Banned Books Week Plan
I knew that this special time of year was coming up, and I decided to get more involved this time. After I checked the list of frequently challenged books, I headed over to my local library to put in interlibrary loans for three of the ten books on the list. This isn't a radical act. This is just me getting informed.
Next week, I will read John Green's Looking for Alaska, David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, and Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer. I don't know anything about these books other than that they are banned. I don't know for whom they were intended or their premise. I only know that they ticked a good number of people off, all of them have some sexy stuff in them, and two of them feature gay characters.
I can't guarantee that I will enjoy all the stories, but I know they it's worth my while to give them a read. I fully expect that I will learn something from each book.
Beyond reading the books, I'm going to participate in the Stand for the Banned Read-Out. I'll create a video of me either reading from one of the books or talking about censorship (or both).
What will you do?
To me it's important to support authors' freedom of expression, and it's equally important to give people stories that matter.
I've got my Banned Books Week plan. Are you doing anything to celebrate? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S. Banned Books Week creates a lot of buzz, but feel free to read boldly anytime. You can never have too many excuses to visit the library.