Ah, fall. My favorite season. Crisp air, bright sunshine, blazing foliage. Apple picking, leaf jumping, pumpkin carving. Halloween, birthdays, my wedding anniversary. Fall is a feast for every one of my senses.
But if I concentrate, I can smell something other than the fallen leaves and fresh produce.
It’s the smell of burning books.
Fall is also the season that brings us Banned Books Week, an annual celebration started by the American Library Association in 1982. The mission of this week is to remind the world that everyone has the freedom to read what they want. No one has the right to make that choice for you.
I love books. I love reading. I was the child who hid with a flashlight under my covers long into the night, went to friends’ houses and spent my time exploring their shelves, and in middle school I even read while blow-drying my hair (Don’t believe me? Check out my school pictures from those years. Horror.) Sure, I did other things, but no day passed that I didn’t pick up a book. My parents encouraged my habit, so long as I got enough sleep and my homework was done.
I only remember one time being told I was not allowed to read a particular book. It was my birthday, eighth grade, and Christine, one of my best friends, gave me a copy of Judy Blume’s FOREVER, a book which deals with teen angst, first love, and sex. My mom read it first, then sat me down and explained that she felt the subject matter was too mature for me. She talked about her views on premarital sex, love, and other things that made me squirm with embarassment and wish to disappear. In conclusion, I could read it in a year or two. Then she hid it. Badly.
It took me less than a day to find it on a closet shelf, and I raced through it. Judy Blume was — and remains — one of my favorite writers, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to read this book. Plus, I needed to see what the fuss was all about.
Interestingly, while I did like the book, it did not make me eager to rush out and jump into bed with someone. By eighth grade I had assimilated a certain worldview of what I wanted and did not want, in the very foreign and somewhat scary world of intimacy with boys. Reading FOREVER (okay, I read it a bunch of times, as I always do with books I like) did not undo thirteen years of life with my parents.
That’s the funny thing about controversial books. A person or group of people hear about it, decide it’s bad for kids, and decide to try to get it banned. Often this is done without reading the book at all, or simply reading out-of-context excerpts pasted together by fanatical control freaks. My mom read it, gave me her view. I disagreed and disobeyed. Naughty, to be sure, but such is life with a teen. The more you say “you can’t”, the more that teen will be interested in whatever was probably just a passing thought to begin with. The important piece of my experience was the discussion, as humiliating as it was for me (and perhaps Mom, as well). The best books are the ones that spark discussion — and sadly, that’s the reason most banned books are challenged in the first place. They encourage thought. And dialogue! With kids! Stop the madness!
Judy Blume is one of the most frequently banned writers in America. This is because her books usually deal with the reality of a child’s life, the fears they harbor, the questions they have, the issues that they face every day. And, yes, most parents want to be the people who explain stuff to their kids. That’s their right, without a doubt. Parents should be the ones to help their own children navigate the world, especially through the turbulent waters of adolescence. But it’s not their right to say my child cannot have access to those books. My mom did not forbid my best friend from reading FOREVER. In fact, Christine had already read it. Her mom is my mom’s best friend. Christine’s mom did not have a problem with the book. (It’s possible she didn’t even read it, I don’t know.) There was no fallout between the moms because of the difference in opinion. Each let the other parent in the best way she knew. The moms talked with their daughters as much as each felt necessary. And Christine and I went on to have some interesting, nervous-giggling discussions of our own. (And to the best of my knowledge, she also did not rush out the next week to have sex.)
When I taught seventh grade, a colleague and I decided to integrate Banned Books Week into our fall curriculum, much to the irritation of our department head (who thought we were upstarts anyway, because we wanted to do more than parse sentences and read The Odyssey). We used it as a jumping off point to talk about the power of language, moving from banned books to advertising to propaganda to politics to essays and speech and back to fiction. It was an awesome unit. (I’m sure department head was happy to see me go when I became an at-home mom). The kids loved those weeks of delving into language, challenging themselves and each other to consider the words they used every day, as well as the words they heard and read in the world around them. They talked about making choices — the whys and hows and ramifications of free speech, whether in a book, at recess, or in a larger public forum. I could see them grow as writers, thinkers, and speakers. Like I said: Awesome.
That’s often what the best books can do for us. They can challenge us to hone our thoughts and opinions, and learn how to express ourselves clearly, honestly, and, hopefully, without fear of retribution. Sadly, some adults refuse to allow kids to rise to this challenge. Again, I have no problem with a single parent deciding that his or her child cannot read a particular book. My problem comes when that parent’s morals and opinions are thrust on the rest of us. That’s what happens when a book is removed from public access, whether a school or library.
Every year, a new catchprase encompasses the spirit of Banned Books Week. This year’s is “Think For Yourself, and Let Others Do The Same.”
Coming soon: Why books are challenged, who is challenging them, and what you can do about it.