Sleeping Beauty in the Rye, a tale of #BannedBooksWeek

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.

24 Responses to “Sleeping Beauty in the Rye, a tale of #BannedBooksWeek”

  1. Rhys says:

    I hate that so many schools in America ban books. I’ve never heard of a case here in the UK (though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen) and thankfully, my school doesn’t ban any book whatsoever. (Well, I say that, I’m sure they’d confiscate the Karma Sutra if I had a copy on me…)

    It seems that most cases are where parents have not even read the book. And even if they have, they seem to be underestimating their teenage kids- we actually have a good sense of morality and sense, believe it or not.

  2. Lee says:

    When people talk about “banned” books, it conjures up images of some oppressive regime trying to force its worldview on the masses by restricting their access to information.

    For almost every “banned” book case however, the situation is exactly the opposite. What you actually have is an oppressive regime trying to force its worldview on the children of the masses by forcing them to read information that their parents are opposed to.

  3. Austin says:

    Dan,

    Thank you for this. This is a wonderful piece about taking an active role in what we intake and what we let our children read. What books are banned that you would reccomend?

  4. Jonathon Side says:

    I think it is fear, but it’s fear of having to think for themselves, of having to actually be involved in their kids lives, having to confront issues and deal with them.

    Why else would they ban the dictionary? Because some kid found ‘oral sex’ in there?

    It’s a dictionary. It has a lot of words.

  5. YES. To all of the above. I will make my own choices about my reading and help my children make theirs. Everyone should have that same choice.

    Eloquently put, Dan. Thanks for sharing.

  6. admin says:

    Lee:

    I’m not sure I understand your statement, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth. It sounds like you’re saying that banning books is a way to prevent schools/libraries/etc. from exposing children to things their parents don’t approve of. Am I interpreting that correctly?

  7. Karen says:

    @Lee There is a difference between banning a book that is passively available in a library, and requesting a change in curriculum or class requirements for a book that is assigned reading in a class. Nobody accused me or my mom of trying to ban “A Prayer for Owen Meaney” from my AP English class when I went to the teacher and expressed my frustration at being assigned a book wit pervasive profanity and sexuality. The teacher tried to ‘edit’ it for content for me, marking passages that I might not want to read, and eventually I just skimmed the rest of the book. If I had pushed the issue, I could have gotten a different book entirely. What I didn’t do is try to stop the rest of the class from getting anything out of it, or stop the library from shelving it.

    I think that if there is a book you have real problems with having on the curriculum at all, then you (and by you I mean any parent or student in general) should talk to the teacher about their educational goals and suggest alternatives or seek to understand the good points while talking with your child about your own values to mitigate the bad. In other words, get involved. If you really talk with your kids about your family values, nothing they try to teach in school can compete.

  8. I’m going to plug my own discussion of this on my website in a minute, but first, my response to Dan.

    Dude, you have put it well. Fear and rights are at the heart of this issue. Fear of the unknown, fear of what one’s kids might face, fear of not knowing how to prepare your kids for the world, fear of the effort it might take to prepare your kids appropriately for the world.

    Imposing one’s own world view on others is, when you think about it, at the heart of much of bad law and objectionable legislative action. It’s stunning to me that in what ought to have been that most liberal of societies where freedom is cherished and nurtured– the USA– this has not been the case.

    So I’m with you.

    But I also really objected to a Twitter post I saw not long ago wherein the person said, “No, sometimes kids need to read something outside of what their parents might chose [sic].” I will allow that this is a true statement– kids DO need to have experiences outside of what parents might individually select for their kids. But that is not for a teacher to unilaterally decide. That’s just more imposition of world view.

    I’m glad you boil the issue down to parental responsibilities, Dan. Because that’s where it’s at. Parents need to step up.

    I hereby plug my own discussion on this issue: http://www.jaredgarrett.com/1274-ban-that-book

  9. Lee says:

    To clarify my earlier statement, I’m saying that the term “Banned Book” is applied way to liberally to a category of books that aren’t actually banned.

    In Nazi germany, there were books that if you were found in possession of would be grounds for your arrest and possible execution. These books were sought out by govt. officials and destroyed. To me, that is banning a book.

    For a group of parents to take action to try and have a book removed from a required reading list because they don’t want their kids to be forced to read it, is (in my opinion) a completely different type of event.

    For almost all (there are exceptions) of the cases of the books being celebrated as “banned” this week, the only thing that happened was that schools removed them from their curriculum at the requests of parents. The books are still available at bookstores and libraries for anyone who wanted to read them or obtain them for their kids.

    So to summarize: in my opinion, not forcing people to read something (or petitioning that everyone not be forced to read something) isn’t the same thing as banning it.

  10. admin says:

    Lee, I agree with you, and I’m glad we sorted that out. I don’t think books should be mandated any more than they should be completely removed. It is, as Jared said, an issue of parental responsibility to guide their kids to read what they think is best–and it the kids’ responsibility, not the parents or the teachers or anyone else, to break that wall and read something new if that’s what they think they want to do. Reading is about discovery, and sooner or later people will discover something that other people don’t want them to have. Yes, that’s terrifying, but it’s also arguably the best thing in the entire world.

  11. Adam says:

    Dan, you usually have very intelligent and well thought out arguments for every point you try to make on your website, but this is just insanity. What you’re asking is for parents to actually take interest in what media their children are experiencing and to take responsibility for teaching their children right from wrong. That’s crazy talk, who ever said that parents were supposed to think critically about their child’s education and to take an active role in helping that child to become a thoughtful and upstanding member of society.

    Ok, I’ll stop with the sarcasm now.

    In all seriousness, how many people actually stop to think that banning or challenging a book is an easy way to make children more interested in reading the book. There was an episode of South Park where the kids’ teacher gave them a book to read (and I can’t remember what book it was offhand) and telling the kids that the book has been banned from public schools for years. Cut to the next scene where all of the kids are tearing through the book and have finished reading it, including Cartman, who is often depicted as quite possibly the worst student a teacher could ever imagine having.

    Nearly every book has some aspect of it that could lead a person to consider banning the book, magic is one reason that many books are banned, but look at what the conflicts in many books are that could easily be seen as offensive: murder, adultery, robbery, kidnapping, war, etc. Those are all themes that take place in dozens if not hundreds of classic books that are taught in schools every day.

  12. Alan Horne says:

    @Adam

    I’m ashamed to admit this, but I have seen that episode of South Park. The book was The Catcher in the Rye.

    I am opposed to banning books, but I agree with Lee that making certain books mandatory reading is equally wrong. For instance, Ethan Frome should never be required reading for school, as it has killed so many people with the power of boredom.

  13. Wow, great analogy. It completely works. I have had to give “the sex talk” far too many times in my life, trying to clean up the avoidance-messes of parents who would rather run from things than talk frankly about them. It’s really quite sad. And yes, I never realized how banned books really do tie in so well with that same problem. We can’t ran away from the world. We have to face it head-on. Better to choose yourself not to read a book than to have someone make that choice for you. (I’m not a parent, so I will let that last statement stand, even though I suppose parents have the right to make that choice for their children, as well….)

    Excellent thoughts. Thanks for sharing them!

  14. Brilliant post, Dan. I love the analogy. But SB’s parents missed even more by hiding her from the spinning wheels. They missed all her growing up years. Reading and watching the same things with our children AND THEN TALKING ABOUT THEM TOGETHER can be incredibly bonding experiences and keep open communications during those tough adolescent years.

  15. Emma says:

    I agree that it should not be up to a group of people that decide that we should ban books. I am an advent reader and have been since I was a young child. I will be a new parent in 3 weeks and I agree that we need to discuss these issues with our children. We need to be an active part of what our children read. I will say this, that anything that they read in a book is so much better than what they can watch on TV or play on a video game. Children that read are that much further than most of their classmates. I will never ban a book from my child’s life. All those books that you mentioned are books that I have read on multiple occasions. I have read books that I do not like but they are a great tool to teach your children also as you have said. I am so upset about this banned book week. I have been to Barnes already once today and the library and will continue to do so throughout the week to show my support that I am not for banned books.

  16. Jason says:

    I am so glad to the responses here. I will expect all of you to sign my petition to get Hustler and Penthouse placed in all school libraries. To do otherwise would be, well, hypocritical.

    Really, people. If any of you have done any research on this subject you would know that most of the so called “banned” books are books that parents have objected to their children being forced to read as part of the curriculum based on subject material. And most of those were deemed inappropriate for the age level and kept on curriculum for older kids. I have not seen a recent case where a book was removed from a library or off bookstore shelves.

    If you really think there are no books that should be not be allowed in the hands of children then you need to look around some more. How about Playboy. It has a lot of good articles. Are you going to encourage your kids to read that, Dan?

  17. admin says:

    Jason:
    If you interpreted my essay as “I will encourage my children to read everything regardless of content,” you have interpreted it incorrectly, and rather impressively so at that. I am advocating parental responsibility, and everyone else seemed to pick up on that point pretty easily. No, I will not encourage my children to read Playboy, I will in fact actively encourage them not to read it, but my point is that I’m not going to try to get it banned so that no one can read it. You’re right, most of the books on “banned” list aren’t really banned, just removed from a mandatory curriculum, and I support that; as I said in a comment above (which you either didn’t read or willfully misinterpreted), I don’t believe that books should be mandated any more than they should be restricted. As for the books that actually are banned–literally removed from availability, so that people do not have access to them–well, I wrote a whole essay about that. You might want to read it.

  18. Lily says:

    I have long thought that books could benefit from a small content warning on the back like they have on the backs of movies. When I was a kid, I read upwards of ten good-sized books a week — my parents couldn’t have kept up with that. A content warning could help parents strapped for time.

    More importantly, it would help adult readers. Since people aren’t nearly as concerned about what’s appropriate for adults as they are for children, book reviews rarely contain information about a book’s profanity/sexual situations/gore. This leads to situations such as the following:

    1. See book. It looks interesting!
    2. Read un-spoilery review. People really like it!
    3. Buy/borrow book. The beginning is really good!
    4. Keep reading . . .aaaagh! My eyes! Put down the book!
    5. No, wait. Maybe it gets better. Maybe that was the only scene.
    6. Aaagh! My eyes!
    7. [stop reading book]
    8. [scenes or language are nevertheless indelibly etched on brain and will involuntarily, periodically be recalled over the next score or so of years.]

    As someone who has worked in a bookstore, I noticed once that especially smutty romance novels have warnings like this. I think they’re supposed to be enticing (“Warning! This book is extremely hot and contains graphic sexual content!), but they work to stave off uninterested readers as well.

    To be honest — and I realize this is a much more controversial idea than the one above — I would love it if lovingly censored versions of books were published alongside their uncut counterparts. I say “lovingly” because the person doing the cutting would have to be a good writer and a fan of the book to do it well enough to both be effective and keep the book’s power. Actually, the TV version of “Silence of the Lambs” is a good example of such censorship done well — they took out the profanity, possibly the very worst of the violence, and I think one scene with unnecessary sexual content, and the result was certainly no worse than the original version. I’d say it was better, because it enabled someone like me, who likes a good thriller but hates profanity, to watch it.

    In the same way, I’d like to be able to read Game of Thrones without wincing and skimming the numerous and unnecessarily graphic sex and rape scenes. If possible (and I realize it might not be considering the way the book is written), I’d like to be able to read “Ulysses” and actually be allowed to enjoy the excellent writing and superb stream-of-consciousness without holding the book to the side, with one eye closed, dreading what sharp, awful sentence might suddenly pop into the scene. In the end, I couldn’t finish it. I’m not surprised people tried to ban it for obscenity. It deserves its place in the halls of great literature and the gutters of obscenity both.

    I don’t think it and books like it ought to be banned, but I would like to be able to opt out of the most objectionable bits without having to miss out on the books altogether.

  19. James says:

    @Lily, inregards to a content label, I’m not agruing for or against it, but today it is easier than ever to research a book before you buy it.

  20. Steve D says:

    @Lily -

    I noticed the same sort of thing when working at a bookstore. That’s why All the reviews at my book review blog have content advisory labels at the end. Like James after you said, in this day and age you can pretty easily discover the type of content a book has…I just like to make sure people go to my blog first ;)

  21. Heidi says:

    We really need a word besides “ban” for the act of removing books from school libraries while still allowing students the right to posses, share, and read said books on campus. Not shelving a book is not the same thing as banning a book, even if the reasons for not shelving it are based on objectionable content.

  22. WhoMe says:

    Banning books and Censorship is always done. It’s not a matter of “if” but “where” — where to draw the line. For example, it is illegal to offer (in a store or library) pornography to minors. That is banning books. Libel, child pornography, and other material considered to be harmful and have virtually no redeeming value is banned in our country (and most other countries, for that matter). A book containing living people’s social security numbers or credit card numbers should be banned from libraries and bookstores. Most people want such things banned. But what if most people want Sleeping Beauty banned? Should it be banned? Do we go with general consensus? This is where things get muddy. Where does the general consensus tread on the rights of others? What is too inappropriate to make available to children? There are laws and precedents for these, and most involve community standards. That makes things more muddy. So blanket statements like “banning books is wrong” worry me because they can become blind dogmas themselves.

  23. HamletMonkey83262 says:

    I have to say, you put the discussion into very excellent, precise terms, Mr. Wells. Kudos also to Lee for explaining the difference between not mandating something be read and banning. There are people in this world who, I think, do not or choose not to understand this. Some cry that any type of complaint about a book’s content is a call to ban that book, which may or may not be the case.

    For example, I had to read Wuthering Heights in school. I, personally, vehemently, hate that book. Not because of the writing style, or inappropriate content, but rather, the behavior of the characters. Personally, I might enjoy burning a copy or two as therapeutic release (take that, Heathcliff!), but I certainly wouldn’t destroy all copies. My opinion is that book might be a good one, if discussed appropriately, to show inappropriate and abusive relationships.

    With discussions of content, children will read a great many things. Unfortunately, and this seems to be a great and somewhat justifiable fear, there are groups that try to suggest that only books, movies, etc. with “edgy”, racy, dirty language and situations are worthy of consideration, as they are “realistic”. I can understand it being a fear, but that goes back to being involved. If a child knows what the parent values strongly and dislikes, at some point, that will greatly affect their choice for what to read.

  24. Kathy says:

    I am a retired English teacher and elementary librarian. I am also rabidly against censorship. Check out my favorite children’s author and illustrator Trina Schart Hyman. Her version of Little Red Riding Hood has been banned, as well as King Stork. I made national news defending King Stork and also built a relationship with Trina as a result. Children are very capable of choosing what they want to read. Parents need to support them and provide guidance.

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