Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Banned Books Week ended a few days ago, with a lot of smart people saying a lot of smart things about censorship. I didn’t think I had much to add to the conversation that hadn’t already been said, and better than I could have said it, but certain comments on Twitter, Facebook and various news outlets have been bugging me. Some of these comments are from book-banning advocates with bizarre assumptions about the intelligence of children and the motives of authors. Some of the comments are from people who make sweeping, sarcastic indictments of parents who challenge books without trying to empathize with those parents (though, admittedly, this kind of grace is haaaaaard). But the comments bugging me the most are from authors who say they’d love to have a book banned, as if censorship is somehow a good thing.
So, in the risk of beating a dead horse and/or preaching to the choir, and in an attempt to distract myself from the INFURIATING government shutdown, I wanted to make a few points:
1) Kids and teens read for the same reasons adults read.
Ask adults why they’re reading and you’d get a bunch of different answers: “Because it’s fun/thrilling/exciting,” or “because I got the chance to travel to a different time and place without leaving my house,” or “I like the way this character talks like a friend whispering in my ear,” or “This story makes me feel better about my own problems,” or “There are a lot of cool facts about cephalopods/beetles/dogs/cars/martial arts/art history/the Boxer Rebellion in it,” or, “I wondered what I would do in that situation,” or, “I wanted to know who committed the crime,” or, "It made me cry."
And if you asked kids and teens why they’re reading this or that book, you’d get the same kinds of answers. People of all ages read for knowledge, for entertainment, for comfort, for magic, for stimulation, for intellectual challenge. But there’s this crazy misconception among those who advocate book bans that anyone under the age of eighteen will view any novel simply as a set of instructions rather than as a story. And not only will kids and teens view novels as sets of instructions, they will follow said instructions like lemmings running off the edge of a cliff. So, if teens read, say, ELEANOR & PARK, they will not process the novel as a beautifully-written, deeply-moving story of love triumphing over hardship and instead start swearing like sailors, simply because the bullies and abusers in the book use a few four-letter words.
This is condescending. And wrong. I could yammer on about the intellectual capacities of teenagers, the tendency of younger children to set aside books they’re not emotionally ready for. I could also yammer on about the ways in which kidlit and teen lit reflect the real-life experiences of children and teens, that so many kids suffer hunger and crime and bullying and illness and so much worse every day, that so many of them have heard it all before. (The worst language I’d ever heard as a kid came out of the mouth of the 3rd-grader that lived across the street). But that’s not the point. The biggest thing that stories teach us is empathy, not only for the people living in situations a lot like ours, but also for people living in situations not at all like ours.
So, I have to wonder if empathy might not be the very thing that we need to cultivate in order to reach those who challenge books, because:
2) Sometimes the people who want to remove books from classrooms and libraries are scared but well-meaning people.
Most of these people are parents that are doing their best to protect their own children in a crazy and chaotic world. Parents can get so overwhelmed by the myriad forces that seem hell-bent on corrupting their kids, they will scratch for anything to blame for what’s wrong with the universe, even if it's just a book. In other words, these parents think that if they can ban swearing, sex, violence, ugliness in books, they can ban it in life, specifically in the lives of their children.
In this case, kindness and understanding is something we all should strive for even though challenges can turn us into giant squids of anger.
But then, sometimes these parents are scared but well-meaning people actively manipulated by quasi-religious and/or political leaders, or are themselves active members of groups with agendas that go far beyond book-banning. These groups advocate intolerance and bigotry. They perform “research” that consists of counting the number of four-letter words in books, completely removing that language from its carefully-crafted context. People who insist on plucking words and phrases out of context and offering them up as proof of Satanism or pornography or godlessness or whatever aren’t focused on literacy or comprehension. They do not care about creating life-long readers. They’re not interested in empathizing with anyone else. They are trapped in their own tiny hamster balls of hate.
Which leads me to my next point:
3) Sometimes the people who want to remove books from libraries and classrooms are bullies.
Maybe the bully is an individual parent who has decided that it is his/her job to parent everyone else’s children. Maybe the bully is a self-righteous school board member who wants to get on the news. Either way, the answer to a bully is NO. And it’s up to each community to say, No, you can’t remove a book off the shelf because you don’t like heartwarming stories about baby penguins. No, you can’t rip a book out of every child’s hand because some random whackadoo posted a list of “bad” books online and you’ve decided to purge your local library of all of them without having read any of them. No, we will not allow you to make decisions about books that affect the rest of us. No, your poor reading comprehension skills are not going to guide our book selections or discussions. No. No. NO.
Of course, sometimes the community in question doesn’t say no. Books are removed from classrooms, stricken from book lists, entire courses ripped from curricula. And the person who has the least say in the outcome is the author.
So, my last point:
4) If you are an author, you do not want your book to be banned or challenged. No, really. You don’t.
Sometimes the scared people — whether backed by creepy organizations or not — will lash out, viciously and personally. Sometimes they email you to tell you that you are a loathsome excuse for a human being. Sometimes they go to school board meetings and read random sentences or paragraphs from your book and publicly denounce you as a Satanist or pornographer or a child-abuser or just plain “inappropriate.” They talk to news reporters and question your motives for writing such pernicious trash — “Cash?” “Fame?” (To which I say, HAHAHAHAHAHA).
And sometimes none of this happens. Sometimes your book -- no matter how literary or valuable or well-reviewed or well-researched it is -- is quietly and without fanfare put in the restricted section, removed from the shelves altogether or not even considered for purchase in the first place.
Having a book challenged, hearing that people believe you are actively harming the readers you adore is a horrible, humiliating, dispiriting experience. And even if you are the sort of person with an alligator hide, or the sort always itching for a fight, you will not sell more books. You will not become more famous. You lose, and so do readers.
Which is not to say writers have any control over the responses to their books, or should spend all their time trying not to offend. (Anything worth reading is going to offend someone, somewhere). And it’s not to say that we stop fighting or stop talking about censorship when we see or experience it.
But do not wish for a book challenge. Do not long for the day you are disinvited from a speaking engagement. Do not yearn for the moment your book is carted from a classroom or stricken from a reading list. Do not anticipate a call from a reporter, or look forward to the day a fearful, angry parent takes your book to a school board meeting.
Do not imagine that any of this is easy, or that any of this is fun.