This week is Banned Books Week, a time for us to look back on our long history of closed-minded foolishness and wonder, among other things, what kind of person would ban Charlotte’s Web. Someone who hates spiders? Or maybe someone who loves spiders and doesn’t want to see them die in fiction? Or maybe it was someone who loves bacon, and thinks the gross depiction of humans not eating a pig was too terrible to inflict on our young readers. Those are honestly my three best guesses; if you’re a crazy person espousing another reason I haven’t thought of, please let me know because I’m very curious.
Beyond the smaller issue of why someone would ban Charlotte’s Web (which is honestly, despite my jokes, one of the most frequently banned books in the US), is the much larger issue of why someone would ban any book at all. I assume that fear is the biggest reason, when you get down to it: fear that someone, most likely an impressionable child, will read a certain book and take from it an idea you perceive as dangerous, either to their personal well-being or to society as a whole. Catcher in the Rye, for example, is banned in part for language, and in part for two separate scenes of almost-sex: one where the narrator hires, talks to, and eventually sends away a prostitute, and another where he is nearly (but not quite) molested by a teacher. Shocking circumstances, certainly, but overall pretty amazingly tame when you think about it. Would you want your child to read a book about a boy who almost gets molested? Not really. But think about it this way: would you want your child to read a book about a boy who recognizes a dangerous situation, confronts the molester, and responds appropriately by leaving immediately? Hell yes. That’s EXACTLY the kind of thing I want my children to read. Don’t take that away from them.
Let’s take a look at what I consider to be the greatest metaphor of sexual education ever told; you know it as Sleeping Beauty. A girl is born and someone tells her parents “You better be careful, because when she hits puberty she’s going to be confronted by a situation that could alter and maybe even destroy her life.” Her parents have two choices: teach her how to handle that situation, or hide it from her and pretend like it doesn’t exist. They choose the latter, but inevitably the child encounters the situation anyway–you can’t pretend forever, and sooner or later the bad stuff is going to happen. The poor girl has no idea what this thing is, or what it’s for, or how to use it, and it’s no surprise to anyone when she immediately uses it wrong. Her life is ruined, and the warning comes true, not because the person who made the warning placed a curse on her, but because the girl’s parents failed to prepare her for the realities they knew she would eventually have to face. And then fairies come in and solve everything.
Imagine how differently the story of Sleeping Beauty would be if her parents had just cowboyed up and done their job: “Hey there, daughter, this is a spinning wheel. It’s an integral part of our life and culture, and you’re going to have to use it one day, but it can be pretty dangerous if you use it wrong. Have a seat and let me explain everything you need to know so you can be safe.” Her parents CANNOT protect her from everything, it’s literally impossible, but now she has the knowledge and the tools she needs to protect herself.
This is the part where you either agree with my metaphor or find some nit-picky fault with it, such as “parental intervention isn’t the same as not banning books.” Granted. The simple act of not banning a book is equal, in this case, to not hiding the spinning wheels. All that’s going to accomplish is to expose Sleeping Beauty to the danger much earlier and more frequently. What makes the system work, and what makes Sleeping Beauty safe, is when you, the parents, take the time to teach and explain and talk. “This is what a spinning wheel is, this is why it’s good, this is why it’s bad, and this is how you can use it safely.” That last part about using it safely can be anything you personally believe in, anywhere from “I don’t care, go crazy” to “make sure you wear some protection” to “Complete and total abstinence from spinning wheels until you’re married.” I’m not trying to promote a specific agenda here, I’m trying to get parents to take an active hand in teaching their children. Hiding the truth, and hiding from the truth, is not going to work. It never has. If you ban a book to protect your children, sooner or later they’re going to encounter exactly what you’re afraid of anyway, and they won’t be ready for it, and there won’t be any fairies around to save the day. You have to do it yourself.
Maybe you have more objections. Maybe you say that you can teach your children about the world just fine without JD Salinger’s help, thank you very much. That’s fine, I’m sure you can, but that doesn’t give you the right to take that opportunity away from anybody else. I don’t want you to control what my children read any more than you want me to control what your children read. If you, as a parent, decide that your children shouldn’t read Catcher in the Rye, more power to you. You know them better than I do, and I’m delighted you’re taking an active hand in their education. But if you, as a concerned neighbor, decide that NOBODY should read Catcher in the Rye, screw you. You don’t get to make that decision for my kids, or for me, or for anybody else, no matter how much smarter/holier/worthier you think you are.
I’m not trying to say that every banned book is an educational wonderland of upstanding moral fortitude. Sometimes a book is just nasty, and believe me, I’ve read a few of them, but I still don’t want to ban them, because that’s not my decision to make. If everyone has the freedom to explore their own media and make their own decisions, then instead of a lazy, ignorant community that lets other people think for them, suddenly we have a well-read, well-informed community of literate decision-makers, who have not only the freedom but the experience necessary to analyze their media, judge its value, and react as they see fit. If you read Catcher in the Rye and hate it, you know what? Awesome. I’m not going to argue with you, because you’re the kind of person who reads books, and that means you’re the kind of person capable of making your informed, personal choices. I like that in a person. Maybe we should hang out.
The big problem with parental responsibility, of course, is that it’s hard. The king and queen in Sleeping Beauty would have had to spend 16 years teaching their daughter instead of hiding the truth and trusting some fairies to make it all work out. That’s hard, and I know it; I have 4.9 children of my own, so I know exactly how hard it is. But they’re my children, and I need to be willing to act like a grown-up and take responsibility for them. Someday soon I’m going to have to read a book I don’t want to read, and/or a book I completely hate, because my daughter wants to read it, and I need to be involved in her education. I am not going to enjoy this process, and I may very well wish that someone would just take it out of the library altogether to save me the trouble. But someone else is going to love it, and maybe even learn from it, and I can’t take that away from them. They deserve the same right I had to love it or hate it at their own discretion.
Let’s increase the amount of wisdom and responsibility in the world. Celebrate Banned Books Week by going out and reading one.