When I see the phrase “Banned Books Week,” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It seems absurd, in the Internet Age, to think that writing in any format could be restricted. But the fact that there were almost 6,000 official attempts, called challenges, to do that very thing in the U.S. over the past decade should make us all want to weep. As should learning that some challenges were successful, and that estimates of undocumented attempts were five times higher.
Accordingly, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom designates the last week of every September to publicize these disturbing activities and remind us that our freedom to read is a precious right that we must take the responsibility to protect.
Book banning, unfortunately, has a long, ugly history, even in this country of supposed First Amendment protections. Today, it’s mainly the weapon of school boards, church groups and disgruntled parents. Most censorship targets are books for children and young adults, and the battlefields are classrooms and school and public libraries.
The censors’ stated purpose is to protect children; but in truth, it is to control children — your children. And any circumstance in which weapons are deployed can injure innocents. A child forbidden to read a book is harmed much more than a child reading a “forbidden” book.
That said, the potential impact of ideas or the transformative ability of stories should not be minimized. To do so would deny that reading is an empowering, enlightening act that has no equal in human experience. Reading is to an individual’s development as the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings is to the creation of a hurricane. It is chaos theory writ on a human scale.
Yes, books are dangerous. So are freedom, truth, love and life. But book banning does not make children safe. It makes them ignorant.
A better alternative exists. You, as a parent, should make informed judgments about your kids’ reading, with advice from children’s literature professionals. But choosing from good, better and best is much different from the extremes of all or nothing, and decisions about age appropriateness and an individual child’s emotional maturity are valid concerns for delay or temporary restriction.
You can make a long-term commitment to active participation and “good” books, then read what your kids read — together. This takes work and time, but you will never regret it. If something you read bothers you, point it out. Share your views. Pose questions. Listen. Discuss. But don’t censor, and don’t accept censorship at your kids’ preschools or schools. Speak out. Set an example.
This may seem like small potatoes indeed when considering the topless lady in “Where’s Waldo?” or the naked toddler boy cavorting in “In the Night Kitchen,” but parenting is all about clarity of purpose and persistence — knowing what’s truly important and sticking with it. Thoughtful, aware, empathetic kids are worth it.
The benefits of establishing an interactive, open process for exploring the universe through books when kids are at the picture-book stage — trust, honesty, healthy discussion and a window into your kids’ world — will increase exponentially the farther your literary travels take you from home.
As your itinerary expands to include the wild and woolly, often-challenged territories of young-adult novels and classic, school-assigned adult literature, you and your kids will be ready, because you carry the well-stamped passports of seasoned travelers to a wider, wiser, more compassionate and freer world.
Banned Books Week
Celebrate your freedom to read every September during Banned Books Week. Learn more at bannedbooksweek.org.
A short list of recently challenged books for children (ages 3-12)
The “Alice” series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
“Alice in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll
“And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnall
“Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank
“Bridge to Terabithia,” by Katherine Paterson
The “Captain Underpants” series, by Dav Pilkey
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” by Roald Dahl
“Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White
“The Giver,” by Lois Lowry
“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein
“Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh
The “Harry Potter” series, by J.K. Rowling
“His Dark Materials” trilogy, by Philip Pullman
“Hop on Pop,” by Dr. Seuss
“I Am Jazz,” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
“If I Ran the Zoo,” by Dr. Seuss
“In the Night Kitchen,” by Maurice Sendak
“It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris
“James and the Giant Peach,” by Roald Dahl
“Julie of the Wolves,” by Jean Craighead George
“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” by C.S. Lewis
“Little House on the Prairie,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott
“The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss
“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” by Mildred D. Taylor
“Strega Nona,” by Tomie de Paola
“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” by William Steig
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
“Where the Sidewalk Ends,” by Shel Silverstein
“Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak
“Where’s Waldo?” by Martin Handford
“Winnie-the-Pooh,” by A.A. Milne
The “Wizard of Oz” series, by L. Frank Baum