By Adam Katz
Banned Books week starts Sunday, September 26, and runs through Saturday,
October 2. Check back here in a few days for more content!
When we talk about banning books, what are we actually talking about? I can think of a lot of books that should be (or that, in effect, are) banned from high schools. Paradise Lost is one example. I loved it. Starting when I was about 23. Even in college, I found myself put off by its intricacies; in high school, I would not have made it past the first page. Come to think of it, all four of the books I centered my dissertation on would be inappropriate to teach in high school, specifically because of their difficulty.* But they’re all perfectly fine to read in college or after. So there are books that are inappropriate for children.
Now the question is whether books can be banned on ideological grounds. Sophie’s Choice came up in conversation the other day. I read this book when I was 19, or thereabouts, and what troubled me about it at the time was not the eponymous choice, though, to be sure, that is a hard passage to read. No, the issue is that it is a book about a Polish person of non-Jewish descent being accused by a Jewish person of complicity in the Holocaust, when in fact she is a survivor of the German camps and he, born and raised in the United States, is not. The whole story-arc struck me at the time as giving the lie to Jewish responses to the trauma of the Holocaust. The idea of centering a non-Jewish survivor is a good one; the idea of making her tormentor a Jewish man is cynical and ugly. I don’t think the book should be taught to high school students, nor to anyone, without a very thorough examination of the history surrounding its polemical construction. With the right approach, of course, you can teach anything.
A recently banned author, Kyle Lukoff, of whose work I am fond, was probably the inspiration for my thinking of banning books as something all educators do, at least implicitly, and not just bogeymen like Christian conservatives in faraway school districts that are, I realize, not far away for some. The following is from Lukoff’s keynote speech for the American Library Association:
“…before my first school year started, I went through the collection and pulled every picture book I could find where an animal or child wore a stereotypical “Indian” feather strapped to their head. I firmly believe that such depictions are dehumanizing, part and parcel of the larger white project of anti-Indigenous oppression, and while I was fed a steady diet of racist books as a child I did not want to inflict that upon my students. In the winter of 2014 I weeded almost every book in the collection about the police, because in children’s literature, nonfiction about the police always presents them as community helpers who keep good people safe, and that is inaccurate.”
It’s much easier to talk about books we would not like banned, because that makes us feel righteous: “Look at these books they want banned! Aren’t they barbaric for banning our precious books?” Maybe. But they’re trying to create a society according to their values, and to control the factors that influence their child’s development. Same as you. If I mentioned that To Kill a Mocking Bird is one of the books parents most frequently ask to have removed from the curriculum, a typical white, liberal American (like me) might be instinctively outraged. If I clarified that the NAACP is asking to have TKAM removed from curricula because it privileges the white savior narrative, would the same person reconsider their outrage? And what about bumping a book off the curriculum because of #MeToo, like my one-time favorite poet, Pablo Neruda? So the uncomfortable questions we need to ask ourselves are:
-What kind of adults do we want our education to produce?
-Are we prepared to make, and fight for, those arguments?
-Are choosing a book and banning a book two sides of the same coin?
-What about reading a book that is problematic, but scaffolding the reading so that young learners understand why it’s problematic?
So the question I have on my mind as we go into this Banned Books Week is: which books do you think should be banned, and which do you think should not be, and why?
*The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, Arcadia by Philip Sidney, and The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish are the other three.