In a perfect world, people would be slow to judge and quick to acknowledge their limitations. They would understand the difference between facts and opinions, and their opinions would be well-informed and tested in the marketplace of ideas.
This isn’t a perfect world, of course. Our hubris is on display more than our humility. Instead of being excited when our ideas are tested, we hunker down and listen only to those who agree with us.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the issue of challenged books in schools. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need reminders about the importance of the exchange of ideas and the freedom to read. In this world, however, the American Library Association sponsors an annual Banned Book Week to serve as that reminder. This year Banned Book Week starts Sunday and runs through October 3.
Since the first Banned Book Week in 1982, more than 11,300 books have been challenged. The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom tracks reported challenges – that is, when someone formally requests that materials be removed from libraries or schools. The OIF estimates that 85 percent of book challenges are unreported to the media and are therefore not part of the official tally. Last year, 311 challenges were reported to the OIF.
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I certainly understand a library patron or a parent of a student disliking a particular book. I can even – sort of – understand a parent who objects so strongly to a book that he asks that his child read an alternative. In my opinion, however, such censorship is ill-advised, signaling to a child that his parent’s values aren’t strong enough to withstand scrutiny.
What I don’t understand are people who believe their personal preferences should dictate the choices for everyone else. For example, vampire stories have a “squick” factor for me. But I would never suggest banning the “Twilight” series from our school library. I’ve seen firsthand how many bored, disengaged students became more fluent readers because they were willing to struggle with the text in order to enjoy the story.
Another book I’ve seen struggling readers actively engage with is Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a story about a young Spokane Indian who leaves his poorly resourced reservation school and enrolls in a white school instead. It’s heartbreaking, hilarious, raw – a moving story with characters who leap from the page. Yet this past year it was the most frequently challenged book in the United States.
“15 year olds should be reading Dostoevsky instead of this crap,” one Amazon reviewer said. “What ever happened to the classics?”
Well, they are on the banned books list, too – wonderful novels such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Bluest Eye” and “House of Spirits” and “Native Son.”
Both the writers of classic literature and contemporary writers who target teens and young adults write about the human condition, the good and dark aspects, because that’s what’s worth reading about. Literature, particularly stories that feature characters making bad decisions or dealing with disastrous outcomes, are in many ways morality tales. Good triumphs over evil. Characters can’t show courage until trouble arises.
Learning life lessons safely and vicariously through the lives of fictional characters is one of the great gifts of literature. We can ignore those lessons if we choose. What we can’t choose is to censor others from learning them as well.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at email@example.com.