on banned books

To be honest, I wasn’t planning on doing anything for Banned Books Week.

I started thinking about banned books and censorship after Laurie Halse Anderson posted about the guy who equates her novel Speak with soft-core pornography and wants it banned from schools and libraries. Then I read posts like this one by YA author Lauren Myracle and this one by writer and blogger Myra McEntire and I thought that maybe, just maybe, I have some things to say too.

I don’t believe in censorship. No, let me take that back. I don’t believe anyone has the right to try and censor something on a large scale. That is, if you’re a parent and you don’t want your child to read a certain book or see a certain movie because of its content, then you have every right to that. I believe this includes contacting a teacher or a school administrator and informing them that your child will not be reading such-and-such book. But no parent has the right to police what other people’s children are reading. And certainly no one has the right to silence an author!

I’ve read Speak. I’ve read Harry Potter and The Perks of Being A Wallflower and To Kill a Mockingbird and other books on ALA’s 2009 list of frequently challenged books. Right now, I am an adult, and I have the ability to think and decide for myself what I want to read. Yes, some content makes me uncomfortable — I don’t read those books! But what right do I have to tell someone else not to?

I was a bookseller for 3 years with Barnes & Noble. I’ll be honest when I admit that sometimes I asked a parent if they’d read a particular book that they wanted to buy for their teen or child. (I should note that I never questioned books on reading lists for schools.) What I mean is, if I had a parent of a young teen or tween (think ages 10-14) who wanted Twilight or Gossip Girl or similar books because their kid really wanted to read it or because “everyone else is reading it,” I usually asked if the parent had already.

Movies have ratings — you can usually tell from G, PG, PG-13, R, etc. what kind of content a movie may contain. This doesn’t translate to books (nor do I necessarily think it should). Books written specifically for teens and kids are not categorized by content or, really, even age, but rather reading level. Also, by the ages of the characters in the book. For instance, in most bookstores, Harry Potter is in Young Reader or “middle grade” because Harry and co. are 11 in book one. Do I think all 7 books contain subject matter appropriate for an 11-year-old? No. Similarly, look at the Teen section — books geared toward 13-17-year-olds. There is a world of difference between a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old. Seriously. But books with all content are mixed right there together, no rating or advisory available.

Like I said, I don’t want an advisory label on books (though we do it for movies, and for music), but I was aware, as a bookseller, that engaging a parent in conversation was a great way to determine if they knew (or cared to know) about the subject matter. I never, never recommended that someone not buy a book because of content! I’m not going to censor a book! Maybe this is something that many people won’t agree with, I don’t know.

The thing that frustrates me the most about what happened recently with Speak is that the man who wants it banned called it soft-core pornography. The “sex” scenes in Speak involve rape. There are two of them. They are not explicit, and they are hardly sexual. (And really, there are more sexual scenes and innuendos on after-school TV programming these days.) They are rape. The entire point of the novel is that this girl is raped and doesn’t talk about it! She stays silent and it eats away at her and she is ashamed. Sure, maybe you don’t want your kid reading about rape; maybe you want to talk about it with them yourself. Fine. But I can guarantee you that there are girls out there who are in the exact same situation as our protagonist in Speak who are also silent because they have never been talked to and because they have never read Speak or other books like it.

No, I don’t believe in wide-spread censorship or the banning of books. But yes, I do believe in being informed and not ignorant of what your kid or your teen is reading. I know that I will be, not because of difficult or controversial content but rather because of age-appropriate content. I’m not going to offer Speak to my future 10-year-old, but when she starts high school? Yeah, she’ll read it then.

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