What it Means to Ban a Book

Todd Parr’s brightly colored children’s books are among those challenged. Some contain images and descriptions of LGBTQ+ people or families.

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”

Potter Stewart, Associate Justice, US Supreme Court
Sex and religion-two things that often lead to attempts to ban books.

By Erika Grumet

The only book my parents ever took away from me was Catcher in the Rye. There are a lot of reasons someone might want to take that book away from a child, but none of those were the reasons my parents confiscated it from me. My parents took the book away from me because I was ten-and-a-half years old. I’d been given the book by a cousin–he had just turned fifteen. I had always had a (well deserved) reputation as a book nerd, and so when he offered a book and told me I’d probably love it, I accepted happily. 

And I did love it. Not because it’s J.D. Salinger’s best work (it isn’t–I much prefer his short stories,) but I loved it as a ten-and-a-half-year-old because it pushed the boundaries on “vulgar” language beyond any book I’d ever read before. I didn’t understand the book, didn’t get the idea of the transformative journey, or realize that the story was about Holden Caulfield maturing in spite of the desire to resist maturing. I didn’t realize that it was the story of Holden’s experience with anxiety, depression and PTSD. I just knew it used language in a way that no other book I’d read before did. That’s the beauty of books in some ways… that you can get completely different experiences out of one book, depending on the times and circumstances in which you’re reading it. (Robert Munsch’s book Love You Forever is a great example of this…different as a child than as a parent, and it takes on a totally new dimension if you know the actual story behind it.

My parents weren’t the book banning, censoring type. They weren’t outspoken about it, but definitely expressed an anti-censorship position if the topic came up. I knew the significance of the number 451, and the plot of Farenheit 451, because it had been discussed at dinner when talking about book-banning, long before I was old enough to read the book. My parents were the ones who gave me books and who made books accessible–I was surrounded by the books my mother had read as an English major in college, novels of all sorts. They gave me copies of Robert Heinlen’s books when I asked about them, and my mother bought me a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I asked. When I looked at the ALA’s list of top 100 Banned and Challenged Books in the 1990s, after counting the ones I’d read, at least 85% of those were books I’d first been given by my parents, even if some were later read again in school.) Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom even before I was reading chapter books. I grew up surrounded by books that were or still are frequently challenged and I didn’t even know that about them until later. It was kind of wonderful.

I remember how upset I was at having Catcher in the Rye confiscated… and it wasn’t even a permanent thing–my parents were quite clear that I could have it back “later.” We all know how frustrating “later” can be when you’re a kid, though. That unspecified period of time in which something off limits where some change takes place that is the catalyst for being allowed to have whatever it is that has been forbidden. You only hope that you’re not let down when you finally are allowed to taste the sweet, once forbidden, treasure.

For kids, censorship undermines the opportunity to ask questions, to grow and to develop critical thinking skills. I grew up in a family that valued education, shared knowledge, and taught me the importance of pushing back against things that are unfair. My own passionate activism about causes I cared about began as a child, and that included making sure that I had access to books. 

It’s been a long time since I was a kid, though, and choosing books for a kid is different from choosing books as a kid. My approach with my own kids has been “age appropriate, but honest,” which meant that, at age 6 or 7, my oldest and I had our first conversation about 9/11. I’ve got some amazing kids who aren’t afraid to speak up when things aren’t just, but I still need to guide book choices and make recommendations. When books have come on our radar that might be better saved for later, whether for the content or the language, I’ve typically said something like “You can read that book because you have the skills to read it, but the theme/content/details/story might be something that you save for later because of [reasons]. If you decide to read it, we’ll talk about it whenever you want to, and you can always put it down and come back to it if you want to.” It’s worked well… although I’ve still agonized a little over when to share beloved books from my own childhood. Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (which regularly appears on the frequently banned and challenged books lists because it talks about things like faith, but also menstruation and bras–misogyny in action) was one of those books that I looked forward to my own kids reading, but which I treasure so much that it had to be given at the right time. Too soon and the topics would be uncomfortable or not relatable, too late and it would be harder to fall in love with Margaret and her insecurities. 

Book banning also means kids may not have access to information they want or need… the right book can accurately fill in gaps where kids may have questions that adults aren’t ready to answer, don’t want to, or don’t know how to answer. It can help kids understand perspectives different from the ones the adults closest to them may be sharing with them. In my own home, books opened doors to awkward conversations about some things–most kids don’t want to talk with their parents about things like puberty or sex, but they’re conversations that have to happen. I used a variation on a technique I remember from the comic strip For Better or For Worse and dropped a book on the bed when the child wasn’t home, and left it. Eventually, curiosity ruled, and the kids picked up the books, and when I noticed that happening (usually because, instead of on the table or the shelf, the book would suddenly be in the bed or the bathroom, or stuck between the wall and the bed so that no adult would notice), I would casually mention that if they had questions about the book, I’d be happy to talk about it…and finally I’d press the discussion a little with a car trip… trapped together and no need to make eye contact means it’s easier to talk about difficult things.

With the age-appropriate but honest approach, books aren’t off limits…and so I realized I haven’t talked as much about banning books and censorship as I probably should have with some of the kids I spend time with, and so I asked some teens about it. Their passion for making sure information was available was comforting and their hypothetical approaches to different situations showed thoughtfulness and wisdom that I was astonished by. These kids very much favored the idea that books should be available and accessible and only “dangerous” books should be forbidden–the example someone gave was “like if it showed you how to make a nuclear bomb at your house with a battery and a paperclip, and you could split atoms that way.” Their perception of “dangerous” really focused on physical safety, not intellectual or emotional, which, knowing these kids, probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. They were very clear though, that there were books that maybe schools shouldn’t have in their libraries (no particular titles or subjects came up,) but that public libraries are vital to our communities and need to be places where ideas can be free for everyone and controversial books should be there whether they’re books you agree with or disagree with. 

I was fascinated with the way they advocated for the right to read, and their suggestion that parents should be the ones responsible for deciding whether controversial books were okay for a kid to read or not. And there was a very clear sense that if a book were to be assigned for school and a parent wanted to challenge it, the school should prevail… the benefits to the many outweigh the limitations of the few, or something like that. We talked about language–the isms and phobias and things like that–and how there are books that might have value because of their cultural influence or literary influence, but that use words or tell stories that we might not be okay with if they were happening now… and these kids understood that those problematic things can be important and are valuable sometimes for their place in our history and sometimes as object lessons to remind us how not to be. And we talked about how books can help kids get information they might need that adults don’t want them to have… about things like coming out, or staying safe from abuse, or not getting pregnant. They had a long list of things that kids should be able to have information about, whether their parents wanted them to have the information or not. When I pointed out some of the most banned and challenged books between 2010 and 2019 they were shocked to discover some of their favorites on there. The Harry Potter series, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books, Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, the Bad Kitty books…they were surprised when I pointed out these were banned or challenged books, and they wanted to know why. 

There are some conversations that are just not easy to have. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them, it means we have to work that much harder at learning how to have them, how to be vulnerable and honest and admit sometimes we just don’t know, or that we’re scared or confused, or that we feel ashamed about things, but don’t know how to process that feeling or experience. The books we’re trying to protect kids from are often books that touch those same feelings. Do we ban Huckleberry Finn because it’s racist or because we (collectively) feel shame about the racism it depicts, and we don’t know how to talk about it? Books which feature bullying, like Judy Blume’s Blubber often end up banned or challenged because we don’t want to, or don’t know how to, talk about the cruelty among children, or because we want to retain the ideas we already have about power instead of breaking down and redesigning the structural support columns that have held us up for years. 

We can be vulnerable with kids, we can be vulnerable with adults,we can be honest that we’re not always comfortable.

When does it become okay to allow one set of feelings–confusion, embarrassment, vulnerability, uncertainty, to make the decisions for others, to deprive them of what they need in order to protect a few people. 

Half of the banned books in the last 10 years have contained LGBTQIA+ themes and characters. Eight of the top 10 books of 2019 had queer content. Books aren’t banned because they’re controversial; they’re banned because they challenge ideologies held by people who want to maintain power. Books are banned or challenged when they amplify the voices of marginalized people. If enough of us receive support and empathy through our writing, then change can be made to systems that uphold heteronormativity, cisnormativity, racism, and xenophobia.” (Amber Leventry writing for ScaryMommy, 9/29/21)

Banning books isn’t really about protecting other people from information, is it? Could it really be that what it’s about is shoring up our own comfort, and not being willing to take the time to do the work to deal with the uncomfortable parts? Can we embrace, even if it is little by little, one person at a time, the things that we need to do to become comfortable in our awkwardness?

Maybe someone needs to write a book about it. 

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