Banned Books Weekan annual event that teachers and librarians across the United States mark with a combination of distress and challenge, is back. The theme for this year’s event, which will take place September 18-24, is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”
He comes in regular midfield extensive efforts to remove allegedly controversial or inappropriate material library and school reading materials. Today, the small groups of parents who traditionally spearhead these efforts are joined by politicians copyright law that would ban or criminalize the making available of controversial books to children.
I teach a class on banned books at the University of Southern California, so I’m prone to noticing headlines on the subject, but that’s not just a perception bias. The American Library Association Reports that in 2021, it tracked 729 challenges to library, school and college materials, targeting a total of 1,597 books. This is the biggest number attempts to ban books since tracking began over 20 years ago. This year is on track to surpass the 2021 record with 681 challenges as of August 31, 2022.
Increasingly, bans have targeted books written by or featuring LGBTQ people and people of color. But perennial classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Huckleberry Finn”, and “Grapes of Wrath” were also contested by parents concerned about their racist language and the marginalization of black characters.
‘Book banning doesn’t fit neatly into the rubrics of left-wing and right-wing politics,’ Pulitzer Prize-winning author reminds Viet Thanh Nguyen.
What unites these challenges is a clear desire to protect young readers from dangerous content. But attempts to ban the books are often driven by misunderstandings about how children consume and process literature.
how children read
Many adults assume that exposure to particular literary content will invariably produce particular effects.
Christian author and editor David Kopp recognized as much when he addressed the controversy surrounding the 1989 children’s book ‘Heather Has Two Moms’.
“[T]he deepest dilemma for many Christians who oppose this book is often not theological, but emotional. It has to do with what we fear,” he wrote on the religious website BeliefNet in 2001. “We fear that our children will be indoctrinated in some way. We’re worried that they’ll come to see homosexuality as normal and then…the part we don’t say…will become one.”
Kopp found this fear “absurd”. He insisted that a “book, well-intentioned or not, is not likely to change our child’s sexual orientation”.
Many scholars would agree. Research shows that children’s reading experiences are complex and unpredictable. As a scholar Christine Jenkins explains in an article on censorship and young readers“Readers react to and are affected by texts in ways specific to each reader in the context of a specific time and place.”
Simply put, children co-create their own reading experiences. Their interpretation of the books is informed by their personal and cultural histories, and these interpretations may change over time or as readers encounter the same stories in different contexts.
Neither the supposedly healthy nor the supposedly dangerous effects of children’s reading can therefore be taken for granted. Children are not just empty vessels waiting to be filled with the messages and images of a text, despite how adults tend to portray young readers as helpless in the grip of the stories they consume.
Wall Street Journal Contributor Meghan Cox Gurdon argued that parents should be ever vigilant against books which would “bulldoze the rudeness [and] misery in the lives of their children. Earlier this year, an Ohio school board vice president accused Jason Tharp, author of “It’s good to be a unicorn“, to “push LGBTQ ideas on our most vulnerable students”.
Who are the children
Such perceptions reflect pervasive stories that American society tells about children and the nature of childhood. These stories are the focus of an undergraduate course I teach called “Boys and Girls Gone Wild,” in which we explore themes of childhood innocence and deviance through texts such as “lord of the flies,” “When they see us” and “virgins who committed suicide.”
On the first day, I ask students to brainstorm common traits in children. They frequently choose words like “innocent”, “pure” and “naive” – although babysitters and students with younger siblings are more likely to agree that children can also be “mischievous” and ” strange”.
My students are usually surprised to learn that the Western notion of innocent children in need of protection is a relatively new idea, stemming from the economic and social changes of the 17th century.
english philosopher by John Locke The late 17th century idea that humans were born as “tabulae rasae”, or blank slates, had an incalculable influence. The child without innate features must be carefully molded. Thus “childhood has become a period of intense governance and control”, according to the scholar Alyson Miller.
Some groups had differing opinions, such as the evangelical Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries, who believed that children were born imbued with original sin. But the narrative of the inherently pure and helpless child has come to shape fields as diverse as biology and political theory.
Perhaps no discipline has been influenced so powerfully as the closely related fields of literature and education.
The value of “dangerous” books
Book bans are gaining ground in cultures that imagine themselves maintaining a barrier between the purity of children and the corruption of the world.
But that effort may have unintended consequences, say scholars like Kerry H. Robinson. In his 2013 book on sexuality and censorshipshe writes that “regulating children’s access to important knowledge … has undermined their development as competent, well-informed, critically minded and ethical young citizens”.
Difficult book debates would play out differently if participants viewed young child readers as active participants in knowledge discovery and creation.
Jason Reynolds, Library of Congress National Ambassador for Children’s Literature and author of “All American Boys‘, which depicts a police officer accused of racism, offers a different – and, I would argue, healthier – way of understanding children’s relationship to reading.
“There is no better place for a young person to engage and grapple with ideas that may or may not be their own than a book,” he told CNN for an in-depth June 2022 report on America’s book ban. “These stories are meant to be playgrounds for ideas, playgrounds for debate and discourse. Books don’t brainwash. They represent ideas.”
For Reynolds and the other authors, librarians, readers, parents and educators commemorating Banned Books Week 2022, adults have a right to disagree with these ideas. But rather than fearing the “uncomfortable conversations that young people bring home,” adults can actively encourage them.
“If adults are doing their job,” says Reynolds, the discomfort that often accompanies growing up “doesn’t have to feel like a danger.”
Trisha Tuckerassociate professor of writing education, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences