Banned Books–Censorship for Kids!

Oct 11, 2010 by

I checked out the Banned Books Week Kickoff in Washington Square Park at the end of last month.  Now I have my work cut out for me in order to make the world safe for budding nerds.

Sorry for the radio silence on this end lately.  I really am still very committed to making an aware, impactful human being out of myself, but events have been unfolding for about the last month that have absorbed all my time and attention and made focus on anything besides themselves next to impossible.  Luckily for you, me, and everyone this overwhelming and upsetting situation will be remedied starting tomorrow morning, at which time I will be able to write about it in more detail.

But until that time, let’s discuss some things that have be going on around Chicago and the world that I’ve found worthy of my somewhat limited energy.  Shall we?  You’re totally interested in that?  Good.

Way back on Saturday, 9.25.10 I had the great good fortune to attend the kickoff celebration of Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association.  
The ALA and Newberry Library put on a read-out of the 10 most-banned books of 2009 in Washington Square Park, and I was invited to go along with my pal Jamie (author of the delightful blog Such A Book Nerd) to the festivities.  We had a fantastic time.  I didn’t expect a whole lot, to tell you the truth.  I thought it would be nerdtastic and kinda fun, there would be free bookmarks, and I’d enjoy the weather.  Expectations were defied.  For one, there were free WHOLE BOOKS!  And authors to sign them!

These are the kind of people who go to a banned books readout.
Look, I know.

Before that Saturday afternoon, I hadn’t heard that each of the 10 books on the Most-Banned of 2009 List would be given its own dramatic interpretation.  From the Twilight saga (as enacted with an appropriate amount of snark by actors from City Lit Theatre) to And Tango Makes Three (as read by a pair of adorable elementary-aged sisters), these presentations did nothing so much as illustrate that it really does take all kinds.  The ALA readout really got me thinking, but it’s taken a few weeks for me to have the time to sit down and really process my feelings about what this means for what I need to do as an active member of society.  

Why does book banning strike a nerve with me?  Is it really my problem–I can read anything I like.  And what do I think I can do about it?

It’s easy enough for me to agree that censorship is egregious and taking books out of the hands of children is wrong when some school district is trying to ban The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird, but as Jamie pointed out, by that token I have to be willing to defend to the death someone’s right to read Going Rogue.  It’s a sticky wicket when you think about kids being taught Palinese in a classroom, but if one work of literature is forbidden, all of them are at risk.  As Melissa Kelly says:

Do we remove mythology and Arthurian legends because of their references to magic? Do we strip the shelves of medieval literature because it presupposes the existence of saints? Do we remove Macbeth because of the murders and witches? I think that most would say there is a point where we must stop. But who gets to pick the point?

And no, some children (or their parents) aren’t ready to read about sexuality or suicide or molestation in junior high or high school, where the majority of banning happens.  But banning results in more kids not having access to true, hopeful, factual information about these subjects, and as Chris Crutcher (a banned author who spoke at the event) said, “when you ban a book, you ban a kid.”  I’m not a parent, but I do have a Master’s Degree in Secondary English Education, and I have taught literature to high schoolers.  My position on this subject, and it is an educated one, is that a parent has the right and responsibility to keep his or her child from exposure to material for which that child is not suited, but no parent has the right to make that decision for an entire group of children.  If you don’t think the language in Huck Finn is appropriate for your young’un, that’s your prerogative.  You can’t possibly know what an entire school or city’s worth of children outside your house can handle, however.  As the ALA says:

Imagine how many more books might be challenged—and possibly banned or restricted—if librarians, teachers, and booksellers across the country did not use Banned Books Week each year to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.

A large and literate turnout in Washington Square Park

As an avid lifelong reader, and the daughter and granddaughter of children’s librarians, I know what wings and what refuge a child can find in literature.  My first sentence was “read to me.”  Being a voracious reader and writer has (sans hyperbole) improved every facet of my life, from job hunting to making small talk on dates.  Knowing what I now do about the very persistent efforts to keep literature from children in this county, it would irresponsible of me to sit idly by.  

So how to act?

On the ALA website, there is a list of ideas and resources to get a person started on the road to Book Warriordom– write a letter to the editor, stage a Banned Books Week event of your own, etc.  So great.  But leafing through these suggestions, it becomes obvious that my first step needs to be finding out what is banned where.  In trying to suss out this information, I ran across this list of ridiculous reasons famous books have been banned.  Do yourself a favor and scroll down to it.  My favorite is probably “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young GirlToo depressing.”  I also found this list of Books Banned Around the World.  Very interesting, but also fairly unhelpful.  Fascinating to know that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is banned in China for its portrayal of anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings, though.

I had a rather hard time finding direct ways to act on this issue.  I could write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper somewhere that banned a book I love, I suppose, except that the instantaneous reaction would be “you don’t know us or our children,” and my point would be handily nullified.  I could find out what is banned in Chicago schools, but once again, I am confronted with the fact that I am neither a children’s book author, nor a parent, so I don’t know that I’d have much impact even here.

Judy Blume echoed my thoughts, as she did several times during my youth, in her op-ed piece “Is Harry Potter Evil?” from a 1999 edition of the New York Times (I can’t believe those books are over a decade old):

“The real danger is not in the books, but in laughing off those who would ban them. … now the gate is open so wide that some parents believe they have the right to demand immediate removal of any book for any reason from school or classroom libraries. The list of gifted teachers and librarians who find their jobs in jeopardy for defending their students’ right to read, to imagine, to question, grows every year.”

But she didn’t give me any helpful instructions on how to prevent evil censorship.  Are you there, Judy?  It’s me, Chelsea.  I need more instruction.

Chris Crutcher, frequently banned Young Adult Fiction author, signing free copies of his books.

Just as I was about to close the internets and call it a day, I found the website of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and there it was–a link that says “take action”!  Of course the easiest thing to do here is donate to the cause after verifying that the organization does what it purports to do.  I have done this easy step, to the tune of $20 (big spender!).  Next, I can peruse the NCAC blog for up-to-date information on what’s happening to whom and where.  Finally, I can sign up for email alerts about ongoing censorship battles, so I know where to send those letters to the editor, and what books are in trouble where.  This is even more useful.  I get one whiff of someone banning To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s on.

Now I wait for evil to rear its ugly head.
I will be ready.

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