Reading banned books can enrich children’s education

My boys and I started reading forbidden books together when they were learning sight words.

I was cuddling with my kids on the sofa, reading aloud from a thin paper folder from the “Captain Underpants” series. My son, 6, and daughter, 4, followed us, looking at the pictures.

We laughed at the actions of fourth graders George and Harold when they plotted against the mean school principal. I was trying to keep my face straight while reading the dialogue in character’s voice: “Help! Wedgie Woman is in the teacher’s lounge. She just drank all the coffee and now she’s giving the gym teacher a husband!”

I’d rather read a children’s book of poetry by Jack Prilutsky than read such outrageous humor. I hoped my children would learn to love words as I did while listening to the sounds that blend together rhythmically as I read them poems, but poetry ultimately failed to engage my children. Instead, my son was so fascinated by “Captain Underpants” that he started creating his own comic book series. He spent hours drawing and writing stories

“Captain Hypnotizing Man” and “Adventures of Super Dog” on plain printer paper, stapling or taping his creations together. Soon my daughter was composing and composing her own picture books.

This creative rush occurred in my home when the Dav Pilkey series topped the list of books most targeted for censorship in 2012. I didn’t know it at the time, but complaints logged by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom cited offensive language and age-inappropriate material as reasons for people asking Withdraw “Captain Underpants” from schools and libraries. These were among 464 complaints filed against books in the United States that year.

Fast forward to 2021, when the Library Association registered nearly 1,600 ban or challenge books, the most since the organization began compiling its list more than 20 years ago. “Captain Underpants” was the second most challenging book of the decade from 2010 to 2019. It’s frustrating that the comic book character portrayed by a bald man in a red cloak and white panties covering nearly half of his body inspired so many people to censor the books.

We like to think that California, with its many respected academic and cultural institutions, is free from the suppression of censorship. The desire to suppress uncomfortable thoughts exists in all societies. In 2020, the Colton Joint Union School District removed “The Blue Eye” by literary giant Toni Morrison from its list of books teachers can customize on its controversial subject of rape and incest. The county lifted the ban after six months, and instead gave parents the option to opt out of their children’s reading of the book.

Controversy over books sometimes stems from overprotection. In the Burbank Unified School District in the same year, the superintendent removed five classic novels from the district’s required reading lists. The books, which included “Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, are still allowed in classrooms and the school library after parents protested that the books were harmful to black students. This step effectively means that most children will not read books.

A few years ago, a parent in my Southern California neighborhood complained on a community Facebook page that a book her son borrowed from the elementary school library contained mature themes inappropriate for young children. Published pictures of the pages of the book. Parents complained.

Some have called for the book to be removed from the library’s shelves. One mom offered a sure solution: report the book as lost, then burn the book.

We parents must realize that we will not always know which books are best for our children. I discovered that the day my son brought home the Captain Underpants book, I wouldn’t have chosen it on my own. However, these boyish picture books helped my children develop their reading and writing skills. Captain Underpants led to the production of the Magic Tree House books, which led to the Harry Potter series, and which led to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Certainly, parents should have the right to choose the books that their children read. But parents who call for books they deem offensive to be pulled from library shelves, or permanently removed from school curricula, are demanding far-reaching rights. They decide what all children can read, not just their own. And these days, it’s not just parents who are calling for a ban on books. Elected officials, political activists, and religious groups also demand oversight.

At least 50 groups are working nationwide at the local, state and national levels to censor books, with many of them working together in a coordinated effort to remove books on LGBTQ topics or race, according to the nonprofit literary organization PEN America. Books under attack are more likely to include colorful LGBT themes, characters, or characters. Those most affected by this ban are LGBT children or young people of color, often both.

What is learning loss for children deprived of books that can connect them to the joys of learning? What is the cultural loss for children who do not see themselves regularly depicted in books, or see people different from themselves transformed into humanity through the art of storytelling? Banning books is causing an endless wave of losses to society. And it often starts with just one parent, just one book.

Minerva Canto is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times focusing on education, health care, and other social issues.

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