The Writing Life
BANNED BOOKS SHAPED ME AS A WRITER
Banned books introduced me to racism in the Deep South and to the grittiness of war, showed me that I wasn’t the only person who felt worthless at times, and made me see how bland the world would be without books.
By the time I was thirteen, I’d read too many banned books to count, and had no idea they were banned because my parents didn’t censor my reading. Four, in particular, imprinted themselves like tattoos on my consciousness, their characters, settings and plots jolting me from my bubbled, suburban world and making me see life through a broader lens: The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller, 1961), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953).
Without these books, and others that challenged my pre-conceived views, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today, telling stories about people who challenge traditional expectations.
Young Adult books is the theme for this year’s annual Banned Books Week, which runs from September 27 to October 3. Fitting as “Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book," says Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee, in a press release issued by the American Library Association. "These are the books that speak most immediately to young people, dealing with many of the difficult issues that arise in their own lives, or in the lives of their friends.”
Being able to choose what to read is an essential part of growing up for young adults. It’s a chance to assert independence and discover new authors and genres. Yet every year, people petition libraries and schools to ban books, to smother children with a limited scope, to keep children from learning about new places, cultures, religions, and ideas. Not surprisingly, parents challenge books more than any other group, with Christian parents leading the pack.
A coalition of Florida parents, for example, is attempting to ban two children’s books right now—Nasreen’s Secret School and The Librarian of Basra—on the grounds that they promote a religion other than Christianity, and are too violent. In a story published by The Guardian on July 20, 2015, Christine Jenkins, an associate professor at the University of Illinois who studies children’s literature and censorship says: “They know very well that they can’t protect their children from any depiction of violence. And this book is such a thoughtful perspective of wartime and what wartime does to a city and the various things you would think when you’re considering – what’s the impact of war?”
In New Zealand, a Christian group called Family First appealed a censorship board’s decision to pass Into the River as appropriate for young readers. Written by Ted Dawe, this novel won Young Adult Book of the Year in New Zealand and is targeted at working-class boys who are not avid readers. The Christian group won the appeal but a year later, librarians fought the decision and the ban was overturned, but the book is now banned again and selling, displaying or sharing it could result in a $3,000 fine.
As a mother and a writer, these censorship incidents, with their narrow-minded religious stances, reek of mind control. And I’m reminded of John Stewart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty:”
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
Like my parents, I didn’t censor my own children’s reading. In fact, I handed them worn copies of my favorites, many of which were banned at one time or another. We’ve enjoyed lively dinner conversations about the various characters and themes over the years and today my children are tolerant, open-minded, curious people with strong opinions and values.
Still, the absurd idea of banning books for young adults is alive and well, with John Green holding the dubious honor of being one of the most challenged authors. Looking For Alaska was the tenth most challenged Young Adult novel for 2014. The number one spot goes to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, and what makes this even more unbelievable is that two of the reasons it’s challenged are its depictions of bullying and cultural insensitivity. In my mind, what better way to bring up discussions about these timely issues than in a novel? This book has been added to my must-read list.
The only good thing that’s come from banning books, is Banned Book Week, which celebrates the freedom to read by showcasing controversial novels. And one of the best arguments for choice in reading comes from Alice Childress, author of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, whose great-grandmother was a slave: ''All of those who were slaves were forbidden to read - or to learn to read,'' she said, ''because people armed with knowledge cannot be subjugated.''
For more information about Banned Book Week, check these out: