So this is Banned Books Week, and as a lover of both reading and writing, I couldn’t let that go by unacknowledged.
I attended a panel this past Sunday that had four YA authors on it—Gene Luen Yang, Patrick Ness, Robin Wasserman and Alex London—and one of the questions posed to them, by a librarian, was about the appropriateness of their books for their target audience.
Ness gave an excellent reply that I will summarize here and that Wasserman and London more or less agreed with: children and young adults are excellent self-censors. If they pick up a book that doesn’t interest them in some way, they will put it down. End of debate. Then either Wasserman or London (I unfortunately can’t remember which, and I was too enthralled during the talk to take notes) also went on to say that the right book at the right time can be transformative, but the wrong book at the wrong time is typically forgotten with no ill effects.
When you look at the censorship map on the BBW website, many of the books listed are challenged by adults in the interest of ‘protecting the children’. Many of the books deal with things that adults think will be too scary or mature for people under a certain age (but where is the cutoff age, exactly? We all know age doesn’t relate to maturity, so the line is gray and wide), but I agree with Ness, Wasserman and London. Kids and young adults have a better idea of what’s appropriate for them than any adult, and each young person’s tolerance will be at a different level at any given moment.
When a book is challenged, it might not be banned. It might be moved from the YA section to the adult section, or perhaps a student will need a parent or teacher note to take a specific book out. That is by no means ideal, but it’s better than a book becoming completely unavailable. Re-categorizing a book might put an overprotective adult’s mind at ease and means the book is still be available to a persistent young person.
But if a book is removed completely, made unavailable, then there’s a problem. In the rush to protect some nebulous idea of ‘innocence’, those libraries and schools that remove books entirely could be denying a student the book they need just when they need it.
Perks of Being a Wallflower and Catcher in the Rye may deal with some heavy themes, but those themes might be relevant to one student who needs those stories, those fictional companions, to help them navigate their own situation. Huck Finn and Beloved may deal with historical issues that still make society uncomfortable when acknowledged, but removing them from the curriculum does not erase America’s terrible past—and exploring that past through fiction can offer students a way of understanding an era they did not live in, help them develop empathy for people who have a different experience of the world. Removing books from libraries and curricula always does far more harm than good.
Six of the top ten challenged books of 2012 list “unsuited for age group” as one of the reasons for being challenged. I think this is just one more way adults underestimate people younger than them. The reason is that we forget all the books that we abandoned when we were younger because we didn’t understand or weren’t interested. Even now, if I didn’t have my Goodreads account, I would easily forget the books I read that didn’t leave an impression.
And for the most part, if you look at the challenged or banned books from year to year, they are all books that mean a great deal to the people who read them at the right time. Even this excellent timeline from the ALA’s website provides a good overview. Some of the books chosen year to year are ones I can’t imagine the world without. Some of them are books I haven’t read yet but are on my to-read list, and I want them to be available when I finally get around to them. And some of them are books I have no interest in, but I wouldn’t deny them to other people based on my personal preferences.
Anyone is allowed to dislike a particular book, or even to find it objectionable, but nobody has the right to deny a book to someone else. It doesn’t matter if the withholding is couched in good intentions: it’s censorship, plain and simple. And the wrong book for one person may be just the right book for someone else.