Six impossible things

Banned Books Week 2011

Some years back, a good friend of mine told me a story about her nine-year-old son, who came to her wanting to read a particular series of adult books that he’d heard his late-teenaged siblings talking about. The books in question were great adventure books, but they did contain several explicit mentions of sex – not graphic, but quite clear. After long consideration, the parents decided that the boy could read the books, provided he came to talk them over with his parents afterward.

The son went away happily and read the books, then dutifully presented himself for the talk. And the first thing his mother said was, “So, did the sex in those books bother you at all?”

The boy’s eyes went wide. “There was sex in those books?” he said in astonishment. “I better read them again!”

I mention this because once again it is Banned Books Week, and I’ve been poking around in the statistics on book challenges that the American Library Association has been collecting for the past twenty years. A few quick calculations show that sexual explicitness was a factor in roughly thirty percent of the challenges, and that 72% of the recorded challenges were to books in schools or school libraries…and the vast majority were brought by a concerned parent.

This is unsurprising, really. People will go to amazing lengths to protect children – their own or other people’s. And I don’t know anyone who, reading levels aside, thinks third-graders should be reading graphic horror, slasher books, or something like The Silence of the Lambs. The problem is with where to draw the lines, and with who draws them.

It’s also a problem of trust and fear. Challenges to books always are. We don’t trust other people to see the same things we do, to have the same objections, to be intelligent or compassionate or concerned enough to come to the same conclusions we do about a particular subject or a particular portrayal. We don’t trust them to agree with us – and why should we? There’s plenty of evidence around that other people don’t hold the same opinions, whatever those opinions may be.

When it comes to children, however, the issues of fear and trust come out even more strongly. As I’ve pointed out before, fiction is dangerous. Parents fear – sometimes rightly – that their children will be hurt, that they won’t be able to handle scenes or concepts that are too advanced, that they will be exposed to ideas and values that are contrary to the ones the parents believe in. That fear knows no politics; in talking with librarians and teachers, I’ve heard over and over that as many challenges come from the political left as from the political right. The objections are different; the reasoning is always the same: children should not be exposed to X because it will hurt them in some way.

And the more I see and hear of this, the more I wonder: Does anyone ever ask the kids what they think? Not often, I suspect. Yet the vast majority of children I’ve talked to seem to me to be much more sensible and aware than most adults give them credit for. They’re quite capable of spotting and avoiding books that bother them. They know a lot more, at pretty much every age, than most adults think they do, and they don’t automatically absorb and agree with things just because someone wrote about it.

Nevertheless, protecting children is an adult’s business. Unfortunately, protection is not a one-size-fits-all thing. The book that gives one child nightmares may be exactly what another child needs to read to help him/her cope with a difficult situation. The real decision is not “Should we protect all children from nightmares by removing this book from places they can easily find it?” but “Do we take the chance that one child will be hurt directly by leaving on the shelves a book that will give her nightmares, or do we remove the book and take the chance that another child will be hurt indirectly because he has been denied access to something that would have helped him?”

People who want books pulled off school library shelves are trying to protect all children, without recognizing that different kids have different needs and without trusting young people to stop reading books that are too much for them. They come down hard on the side of preventing direct harm (as they see it), rather than preventing indirect harm. Yet it’s a lot easier to teach children not to put a hand on the stove because it will burn them (immediate, direct harm) than to convince them that eating greasy hamburgers from the take-away place is bad for them (long-term, indirect harm) – at least, my siblings and I begged for the take-out hamburgers for years and years, despite our parents’ explanations, while I don’t recall any of us ever defying them over the stove.

Adults, as a group, don’t really trust anyone under twenty-one to make good decisions or good choices. But while it is obviously true that the younger the child, the less life experience they have from which to draw conclusions, I don’t think that young people do any worse, as a group, than adults when it comes to a lot of the decisions they have to make. I also think the old saw about the way you avoid making mistakes is through experience, and the way you gain experience is by making mistakes. And frankly, making a mistake about what kind of book to read is a lot safer than some of the, um, experience I remember gaining along the way.

Lines do have to be drawn sometimes, but I think that decisions about what is appropriate for all children (as opposed to a particular parent’s individual child) need to be made with great care and consideration, and probably with the default being to let a particular book stay on the shelves. Because I think that children can be trusted considerably farther than many adults think when it comes to avoiding – or, like my friend’s son, just not seeing – material in books and stories that are harmful to them.

  1. I had an interesting moment the other day after I had finished reading Tamora Pierce’s Terrier and was on the amazon page looking at the reviews. There was this one review by someone who had bought the book to give to a 14 year old grandchild and had started reading it himself to make sure it was appropriate. I thought it was a fun adventure, occasionally sad, often funny, with great characters and an interesting plot. This person was horrified by it. It was about killing children, and selling them into slavery, and had moments where evil people said horrible things about rape and murder and suchlike. He was definitely of the mind that it was terribly inappropriate and beyond the pale for a book marked as appropriate for 7th graders. I thought this was funny more than anything else. How could someone be so out of touch?

    But I thought about my early experiences with Tamora Pierce as well, different books, one that traumatized me thoroughly because it implied – not even said, just implied – that the main character would likely, one day, like boys and want to have kids. (There may have been some possible rape undertones that made it worse, but it was really the ‘want to get pregnant’ part that threw me.)

    Basically, there is no way to predict what is going to be traumatic for one child or another. The only thing that I think we really should do is allow kids to have discretion. If there is a book that a kid finds very traumatic – don’t force them to finish it, and be aware of what they’re reading, and talk about it. Kids aren’t cookie-cutter cut-outs, and neither are books. It’s a little like matching snowflakes, but quite a bit more worth it.

  2. I remember quite vividly being not allowed to read some book because my parents felt it had poor moral values in 9th grade. My teacher assigned The Auctioneer by Joan Samson instead which I read alone and had to study sufficiently to produce a report. I found The Auctioneer to be absolutely horrific, and it gave me nightmares. Ironically, no one cared that the replacement book was so bad, because it did not include homosexuality.

    Just to be clear, the writing in The Auctioneer was not bad. It was the storyline in which a town was essentially destroyed by its own public authorities and everyone was helpless to protect themselves that was traumatizing. Teenagers already mistrust authority, to present ‘the authorities actively out to get us’ enshrined in the aura of classic literature was very disturbing.

  3. Well-said! (as usual)

    There are books that I think are “bad for brain”, because they perpetuate negative social patterns, like sexism (in its many and varied forms), or selfishness, or imperialism. I warn friends away from these books, I don’t keep them in my house, and I would be upset if I found my hypothetical children reading them. But probably not upset enough to take the books away.

    I am close friends with a girl in her teens (she’s eight years my junior); we talk about nearly everything together, including, you guessed it, boys. I was bemoaning my confusion about some man’s behavior, and she said, “I have just the thing!” And she handed me a battered paperback copy of The Rules (

    I don’t know where she got this book. It gives me gooseflesh to think that her own mother would hand her a book that tells women that deception is the only way to catch a man and warns against talking too much and having too many opinions, but I can’t think of where else she would have found it, given that she’s not the type of girl who looks at self-help books. Frankly, she’s not the type of girl who has trouble attracting attention from boys, either.

    I have never wanted so badly to throw a book away. If it had been a gift, instead of a loaner, I might well have done. I’m still not sure how to approach her about it, because it is, as far as I’m concerned, completely toxic, and it’s hard for me to conceive of any good at all being derived from it. Perhaps like your friends’ son, she simply didn’t see the many clawed nasties encouraging poor self-esteem and saw only the (few and scattered) pieces of genuine good advice the book had to offer. But I want to point them out to her because, unlike a sex scene, the inappropriateness of which has an expiration date, put-downs on feminism hurt people at any age.

    I don’t believe in banning books, period, on principle, essentially for the reasons you stated. But sometimes–albeit rarely–I read a book that makes me feel like putting a big warning sticker on the front cover: “HERE THERE BE CRAZIES”.

  4. My kid read the Twilight series. I talked to her about how actions that might work out in a book can be freaking red flags in real life, and how the characters are not role models, and let her. (I haven’t read the books themselves, but I have read some rather thorough reviews from people who both have issues with some of the stuff, and who have admiration for much of it. It’s… interestingly tangled.)

    She’s also found — and skipped over — various sex scenes in other books. See, she wanted to read a book I’d just finished, the second of Bujold’s _Sharing Knife_ series. Which prettynear starts with a honeymoon scene. On the other hand, considering everything, it’s a pretty tender one, and positive, and non-vulgar, and… there are worse things she might find in that respect. (I was reading the Playboy cartoons at, I dunno, age 4 or 5?) I think she pretty much skimmed it, though.

    Kids. Resilient. Warning them is probably a better way to get them to *think* about problematic stuff, rather than just keeping them from reading it.

  5. There’s an age up to which sex is skipped over along with any other mushy romantic bits. Or possibly all the bits that talk about politics.
    My wife has problems with cruelty to animals. I often censor the newspaper for her, and the mailings from the humane society. She also has a problem with snakes so she’s read half a Harry Potter novel and seen one movie.

    Remember when “Banned in Boston” was put all over bookcovers as a selling point?

  6. I still skip over sex scenes. 😀 Though mainly because they’re boring and poorly written. (Or just ugh, if we’re talking literary fiction.)

  7. First off, I would like to say that I am a fan of your work and have been reading your blog for a couple of months now. Even though I am not a serious writer, I have found your blog to be very insigtful as a reader, as well as inspiring to try my hand at writing fiction.

    This post in particular was spot on. I think that part of the issue with mass censorship for children stems from some parents not supervising their own children’s activities and expecting someone else (like the school librarian) to do for them.

    My grandmother was a reading teacher for many years, working one on one with students who needed extra help. One of her main points about getting kids to read better and more was to always encourage reading of any kind. This included things like Mad magazine and romance novels. While I don’t completely agree with a total lack of censorship, I can see that censorship in general could be discouraging to kids who are not that motivated to read in the first place.

  8. I have a rather vivid imagination, and as a kid nightmares were the bane of my life, so until I was twelve or so, my mom pre-read pretty much everything to make sure it wasn’t too scary for me. She let me know, though, that it was a `for now’ thing, and when I was old enough to handle the scare factor I’d be able to read the books. I’ve read most of them since, including the Prydain Chronicles, which I love, but which involve some pretty creepy undead and one instance of human sacrifice. The Prydain Chronicles are among my favorite books ever, but if I’d read them too young, I wouldn’t have liked them at all. My mom never tried to sensor other people’s children. She believes very strongly that that’s the job of the parent.

  9. I’m a bit radical – I think some books should be banned. But probably not the ones everyone assumes I would think. And maybe not in the government-censor-with-black-marker way; in the this-is-a-piece-of-garbage-and-nobody-will-buy-it-so-it’s-not-getting-published sort of way. Oh, wait- lots of books are censored that way, already! As to children, if there’s a book I think one of my children shouldn’t read, I’ll tell them why – and I will say, “too sexually explicit for you” or “too violent.” (I’ve found that if I don’t want children pretending – or really trying – to kill each other, a limit must be placed on the violence intake of their imaginations.) Having said that, most books I’ll just say “yeah, I didn’t like ___, because I felt like the author was saying______ with it, and I disagree because______. But I really liked the part where…. and I liked ____book better, because I thought the author’s treatment of that problem was better.” After two or three conversations like this, they start coming to me and saying “yeah, I liked this book because of ____, except for _____ where I thought____ would have been better.” And although I think I would like it if my children agreed with me all the time (I’ll never know if I really would), they often come back with opinions quite different from my own. But they’re not being passive readers, which I think is far more important than which books they actually read (within reason. I did get mad at a library that put a horror book with cannibalism in the children’s – not young adult’s – section, once. But I wasn’t telling them not to have it; just not next to Dr Seuss and Helen Oxenbury.)

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