I’m climbing onto the soapbox for my annual speech about banned books. We all have the right to our opinions, and for most of the countries in the world, this includes voicing these opinions. If we can write and talk about our views, why should we not be allowed to make our own decisions regarding the stories we choose to read? This is why I “celebrate the freedom to read” every year. Besides, as a published author I’m against censorship. (Though, sadly, as a teacher I must at times “censor” excerpts read aloud in class due to the topics; after all, I feel it appropriate to consider the sensibilities of the other students, but this is the topic for another time.)
What irks me the most about the lists of “censored” books (which include both those books challenged and those that are banned and removed from library shelves), is the reasoning behind the “complaints.” I often wonder whether the books have been fully read by the person complaining. When I worked at a library years ago, I was also baffled by written complaints from parents about a book. Clearly, they did not want their child(ren) to read these books and that is perfectly acceptable (see my first few sentences above); however, to make this “decision” for every other reader is the issue I have with such challenges. Perhaps I’m “offended” by the saccharine and shallow reading material you choose. But I don’t restrict you from reading it. See, this is the central point of the freedom to read–choosing your books.
Here are just some of the “reasons” behind books being challenged: “offensive language” (according to whom?); “sexually explicit” and includes “homosexuality”; “violence” (do you watch much TV?); “unsuited to age group.” This year, graphic novels top the list for children’s books included. In fact, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins for challenged do to “anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.” Do you realize how many families enjoyed this movie (which followed the book’s plot line very well) and had discussions about the issues raised in the story? For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, the reasons include: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. If you’ve read this book, you know Alexie is Native American and the book is about living on Rez. Is someone offended by the portrayal of whites in this book or of Native Americans? If it’s the latter, then the book needs to be read not censored. The main character is trying to break the cycle of poverty of his family. Incidentally, many of the children’s books that make the list include “unsuited to age group.” Hello? These children’s titles are juvenile literature published by the children’s division of a major publishing house and I’m supposed to believe that those editors and publishers don’t know the target audience?
The first time I reviewed the list of banned and challenged books from the past, I was shocked to see so many books I loved, some that I’ve only read because they were required reading in literature classes. Many have changed my views on life because I read them. Here are a few I read in school (and am rereading while tutoring high school students): The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (1925); The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939); The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906); To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and so many more.
As an author, my mind whirls through potential story ideas based on how my life might be different if I had never been exposed to literature deemed “harmful” by some other reader. Even this finds it way into my writing, in a world I’m creating where Kaeylene lives in a time in her world when some others decided the who and what of daily life for all (and of course, she fights against this “norm”). Thankfully, it’s only a fantasy and I travel there to continue writing it on my terms.