When I was growing up, my parents mostly let me do my thing. We had rules, but they generally centered around safety and respect — don’t do things that hurt other people, or that might hurt you. Other than that, I was pretty much allowed to make my own (often ridiculous) choices and deal with the (often embarrassing) results. The one area that my Mom exerted her authority was, interestingly enough, my choice of reading material.
Maybe she chose books to worry about because I spent the vast majority of my time with them, or maybe it was because she herself is an avid reader, so she understood exactly what it was I could be reading under my covers at night. For whatever reason, there were very clear rules about what I could read until I was an older teen — nothing with overt sex, nothing that glorified violence or cruelty, nothing that depicted unhealthy relationships in a positive light (she would have DIED if I ever brought any of the Twilight books home). At the time, the rules mostly made me buy a lot of trashy novels and stash them under my mattress. But now, I kind of get it.
Teaching middle school, I am frequently disturbed by the book choices of students (especially girls), because so much of what is marketed towards that age group is just not developmentally appropriate. A book that I may read as an adult has an entirely different meaning to a thirteen-year-old who doesn’t have the life experience or perspective to recognize irony, generalizations, satire, or just plain poor choices. I get really worried when my twelve-year-olds read books about teen crack addicts and miss the underlying message that drugs are bad, noticing instead how fun the parties sound and how attractive the main character’s boyfriend seems to be. I wish that kids would only read books that are appropriate for their age. But does that mean that I would ban those “inappropriate” books if I could? Hell no.
Despite my obvious (and often founded) concerns, it’s often the books that are the most “dangerous” that end up having a positive impact on my students. Sometimes they find something in a character that they can relate to, or they picture something vividly enough through the book that they feel like it’s their own experience, and they don’t have to test it out. But even if the effects were only negative, I still wouldn’t take away that choice. Because what it comes down to, what it always comes down to, is that the choice itself is the powerful thing.
Every Banned Books Week, I talk to my students. We look at that year’s list (all books that have either been banned, or that organizations have attempted to ban) and talk about titles they recognize, discussing what it was about each book that earned it the honor of inclusion. And the kids get pissed. And it’s awesome.
At an age where we balk at any attempt (real or imagined) to silence our special, unique voice, adolescents empathize with banned books. Kids who have never read a book for pleasure become incensed at the idea that someone could tell them they can’t read something, and decide to really stick it to the man by — ha! — picking up a book for the first time in years. That’s the kind of rebellion I’ll get behind.
On top of using banned books as enticement to read, I find them an amazing conversation starter. In discussing why a book was banned, conversations about politics and societies and freedom of speech and value systems and personal freedom and religion and appropriateness spring up in classrooms where before there were only crickets. I always walk away from these conversations impressed by the thoughtfulness of adolescents.
I encourage anyone with access to a teenager to start a conversation this week about banned books, or about censorship in general. Some questions to consider:
- Is censorship ever appropriate?
- Would it be ok to “partially” ban a book, maybe from a certain audience?
- Are there any books that you think should be banned, for the sake of the greater good?
- Who should have the right to ban books, if anyone?
- If you could ban a certain book, would you? If so, why, and which book?
- Should parents be able to decide what their children read? At what ages?
Generally, I’ve found that teens favor freedom of choice — not shocking, considering that the whole point of being a teenager is to learn how to be someone other than your parents. But most kids are able to think further than “don’t tell me what to do.” I am always impressed by how readily my students will adjust their perspective to try to see things from the other side.