Banned Books Week, an annual event marked by educators and librarians across the United States with a mixture of distress and challenge, is here again. The theme of this year’s event, which takes place September 18-24, is “Books Unite Us. Censorship divides us.”
It comes amid regular high-profile efforts to remove allegedly controversial or inappropriate reading material from libraries and schools. Nowadays, the small groups of parents who traditionally lead such efforts are joined by politicians who compose legislation that would criminalize or criminalize making controversial books available to children.
I teach a class on banned books at USC, so I’m prone to noticing headlines about it, but that’s not just a perception bias. The American Library Association reports that in 2021, it tracked 729 library, school, and college material challenges, targeting a total of 1,597 books. This is the highest number of book ban attempts since tracking began more than 20 years ago. This year is on track to beat the 2021 record with 681 challenges as of August 31, 2022.
Increasingly, bans have targeted books written by or featuring LGBT people and people of color. But enduring classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “Grapes of Wrath” have also been challenged by parents worried about their racist language and the marginalization of black characters.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen states that “banning books does not quite fit the rules of left and right politics.”
What unites these challenges is the stated desire to protect young readers from dangerous content. But attempts to ban books are often motivated by misunderstandings about how children consume and process literature.
How do children read?
Many adults assume that exposure to certain literary content will always produce certain effects.
Christian author and editor David Cobb admitted this when he addressed the controversy over the 1989 children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies.”
“[T]The deeper dilemma for many Christians who oppose this book is often not theological, but emotional. He wrote in the faith-focused BeliefNet in 2001: “It’s about what we fear. We fear that our children will be indoctrinated somehow. We fear that they will come to consider homosexuality normal and then…the part we don’t say…becomes part one” .
Cobb found this fear “ridiculous.” He insisted that “the book, bona fide or otherwise, is unlikely to change our child’s sexual orientation.”
Many scholars agree. Research shows that children’s reading experiences are complex and unpredictable. As researcher Kristen Jenkins explains in an article on censorship and young readers, “Readers respond to and are affected by texts in ways specific to each reader in the context of a specific time and place.”
Simply put, children participate in creating their own reading experiences. Their interpretation of the books is explained by their personal and cultural history, and these interpretations may change over time or when readers encounter the same stories in different contexts.
Neither the supposedly healthy effects nor the supposedly dangerous effects of childhood reading can be taken for granted. Children are not just empty receptacles waiting to be filled with messages and text images, despite how adults tend to portray young readers as incapable of bondage to the stories they consume.
Wall Street Journal contributor Megan Cox-Gordon has argued that parents should always be vigilant about books that would “knock down roughness”. [and] misery in their children’s lives.” Earlier this year, Ohio School Board Vice President Jason Tharp, author of “It’s Good to Be a Rhino,” accused Ohio School Board Vice President Jason Tharp of “pushing LGBTQ ideas on our most vulnerable students.”
who are the children
These perceptions reflect pervasive stories told by American society about children and the nature of childhood. These stories are the focus of a college class I teach, Boys and Girls Gone Wild, in which we explore themes of innocence and perversion in childhood through texts such as “Lord of the Flies,” “When They See Us,” and “The Suicide of the Virgin.”
On the first day, I asked the students to brainstorm about the common traits the children had. They often choose words like “innocent”, “pure” and “naive” – although nannies and students with younger siblings are more likely to admit that children can also be “mischievous” and “weird.”
My students are usually surprised to learn that the Western concept of children as innocents in need of protection is a relatively recent idea, stemming from the economic and social changes of the seventeenth century.
The late 17th-century English philosopher John Locke’s idea that humans were born as “rasi tabula” or white slabs had an incalculable influence. A child who does not have innate traits must be carefully formed. Thus “childhood became a period of intense judgment and control,” says researcher Alison Miller.
Some groups had divergent views, such as the evangelical Christians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who believed that children were born imbued with original sin. But the novel of the pure child with its impotent nature has shaped fields as diverse as biology and political theory.
The disciplines may not have been as strongly influenced by the intertwined fields of literature and education.
The value of ‘unsafe’ books
Book bans are gaining traction in cultures that imagine themselves as supporting a barrier between the purity of children and the corruption of the world.
But this effort could have unintended consequences, argue scholars such as Kerry Robinson. In her 2013 book on sexuality and censorship, she wrote that “regulating children’s access to important knowledge … undermined their development as competent, informed, critically minded and moral young citizens.”
Discussions about difficult books might go differently if participants understood young readers as active participants in the discovery and creation of knowledge.
Jason Reynolds, the Library of Congress national ambassador for youth literature and author of the often targeted book All American Boys, which depicts racially charged police beatings, offers a different—and I would argue more correct—way of visualizing children’s relationship to reading.
“There is no better place for young people to engage and wrestle with ideas that may or may not be their own than a book,” he told CNN in an in-depth interview in June 2022 about book bans in America. These stories are meant to be playgrounds for ideas and playgrounds for discussion and discourse. Books don’t brainwash. They represent ideas.”
For Reynolds and other authors, librarians, readers, parents and educators commemorating Banned Books Week 2022, adults have a right to disagree with these ideas. But instead of being afraid of “uncomfortable conversations that young people bring home,” adults can actively encourage them.
If adults are doing their jobs, the discomfort that often accompanies growth ‘shouldn’t feel like a danger,’ says Reynolds.