More on banned books week

Us Asif! authors have been chatting more than a little about the whole books-being-banned situation and we don’t always agree. Some of us do think there are books that are inappropriate for kids. For instance, I would not be totally wild about a ten-year-old reading the Marquis de Sade.

On the other hand, when I was ten I picked up Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (I blame my parents!) and promptly put it back down ’cause it was not only gross, it was really really really boring. I read it again in my late teens and had the exact same response. I imagine the ten-year-old me would have had the same response to the Marquis. As a kid, much like the kid in The Princess Bride, I skipped all the kissing bits. Boooring!

nullMost of us Asifers agree that there are books that kids shouldn’t be reading, but none of us can agree on what those books are or what the magic age of being able to read “adult” stuff is. I read and loved Alexander Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet at an early age, along with a slew of other “inappropriate” books. I think it had no ill effects on me (others may disagree).

The problem with the banning of books in the US of A is that there are different rules in every state. Hell, there are different rules in every school. In a lot of cases individual principals (head masters) and school librarians are removing books from shelves, or not ordering them in the first place.

Now, obviously school librarians need a certain amount of discretion. They have budgets. They can’t buy every book and it’s their job to buy books that are appropriate for their students. You can’t do that without making judgements.

The school librarians and principals are the ones on the frontline. They’re the ones dealing with parental complaints. They’re the ones looking at catalogues and deciding what to order. If their school is in a particularly conservative area they might see a book titled Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs fall in love listed as a middle grade book and decide that ordering it just isn’t worth the grief, no matter how tame the content.

As it happens that’s exactly what’s happened to Maryrose Wood’s book despite it being as pure as the driven snow and its title being the raunchiest thing about it. And yet the title fits the book to a tee. Should her publishers have called it something else? Should people read books before they rush to ban ’em?

Is banning books ever a good idea? How about just limiting access? There are some kids who are horribly freaked out by books. I babysat for this one little boy and if I read him stories that were even a teeny tiny bit scary he would not be able to sleep for a few nights. When he was a little older and reading on his own, Grimm’s fairy tales deprived him of sleep for weeks. He wasn’t ready for it and was a much happier and saner kid when he stuck to sport and pony books.

But there are young kids who adore the scary stuff. Why should they be deprived of their reading pleasure cause some other kid is scared by the same books? Kids mature at different rates. One size really does not fit all. And besides, that kid I babysat for—he self-regulated. He stopped reading the fairy tales after the first two. Every time he decided a book was scary he stopped reading. I suspect a lot of kids do the same thing.

So usually it’s not a question about what a kid does or doesn’t want to read; it’s about what their parents do or don’t want them to read. And, yes, parents have every right to do that. But they do not have every right to regulate what all the kids at their child’s school can read.

And, frankly, I worry about parents who are that controlling. When I was in primary school one of my friends was not allowed to read any books her olds deemed sexist or racist. So she read those forbidden books (mostly by Enid Blyton) over at my place and we’d pretend to be members of the Famous Five (with huge fights over who got to be George) or pretend we were in boarding school at Mallory Towers and have midnight feasts (though sadly we never managed to stay up till midnight for them).

Forbidding her those books and not allowing her to watch television did not protect her from racism or sexism. It just made the forbidden items more desirable. It’s incredibly hard to control the cultural artefacts your child comes into contact with and even harder to control what they make of them.

I understand the impulse, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. (I also understand why authors feel compelled to respond to bad reviews.) I also wonder what exactly is the harm that parents think their child will contract from reading books they deem “inappropriate”. Is it a bid to put off having awkward conversations? To protect the child from how foul the world is? Is it an attempt to mould your children in your own image? (Good luck with that, by the way.)

What do you lot reckon?


  1. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    Well, but not wanting a ten-year-old to read the Marquis de Sade isn’t the same thing as saying the Marquis de Sade should be banned, is it?

    It would be in the adult section – and in a children’s or school library, the issue would never come up, as they haven’t got a place for it.

    As you say, pretty much no kid in the world would read past page .002, anyway. Kids are remarkably good at self-censoring. Either they just won’t read stuff that isn’t right for them, or they won’t understand it.

    I always use this example. When I was in 6th grade, age 11 or so, my veryfavouritebookinthewholewideworld was Mists of Avalon. Last year I saw it on grade 8 reading lists and thought I’d have another go. I was shocked. Satyrs! Orgies! Incest! But when I was 11, I read the whole thing, numerous times, and I didn’t get any of the priapus-laden text. I thought “priestesses are cool. women are strong. yay arthurian legends retold!”

    Another example is Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. There’s sex in it – and it gets read regularly by 8 year olds. But guess what – the 8 (and even 9 and 10) year olds I know literally didn’t get that she had sex. They know that something happened, and they leave it at that.

    In any case, if I had a kid, I’d make sure I knew what they were reading. I wouldn’t stop them from reading anything if they were dying to, but I’d be sure to talk to them about it. Then again, I wouldn’t be one of the parents that librarians have issues with, either… 😉

    xo jenn

  2. veejane on #

    One bans a book because one would rather it did not exist at all, not because it would be harmful to a specific population. That is just pretext.

    Although it’s kind of funny, that one guy who tries to hide the video of “The Last Temptation of Christ” among the romance novels, because he has failed to get it banned, it’s also just plain irritating.

  3. Gwenda on #

    I’m basically with Jennifer on this one. In high school, I was the librarian’s consultant and stocked the library with all sorts of racy stuff that permanently stayed checked out (of course, racy back then was Francesca Lia Block — and hey, it was small town Kentucky anyway). Several times books were challenged when my mom was principal at the high school. Each time, she read the book and refused to take it off the shelves or the reading list. I believe the last book this happened with was The Color Purple, which one of the English classes was teaching, and some uberreligious kid told their mother about the lesbian scenes.

    The line holding these people back from banning books is so thin — in another school, or with another principal, it could and obviously does happen. Scary.

  4. Barry on #

    i think about this a lot, primarily because of content in my second book. i drew a very clear line for myself (“where?” my editor asked), and i know i didn’t cross it, but people will always argue/quibble over where that line should have been in the first place.

    i am ashamed to admit that i grew up in carroll county, maryland, the county that made national headlines last year when its octogenarian superintendent of schools pulled carolyn mackler’s “the earth, my butt, and other big round things” off the shelves in high schools and middle schools on the say-so of a single student, over the objections of teachers, librarians and other students. he eventually capitulated and returned it to the high schools, but this is a guy who yanked the book and then *admitted* that he never even read it! he “flipped through it” and saw some “objectionable words” and pulled it on that basis.

    the teachers i know in that system were more then horrified — they were personally insulted. one middle school media specialist said to me, “he’s basically saying that i don’t know how to do my job, that i can’t judge what’s appropriate for the shelves, and that i don’t know how to make sure the right book gets to the right kid.”

    kids need to be exposed to things that discomfort them, that disturb them, that challenge them. it’s the only they evolve. and has been pointed out, kids are *amazing* at self-selection and self-censorship, something my wife observed in 12 years of teaching elementary school. when something is above a kid’s level or obviously inappropriate, they tend either to be not interested, or to decide on their own that it’s not for them.

    it’s always easy to find the extreme examples, of course (“would you let a six-year-old read the story of o?”) but those are usually strawmen — how often does that situation actually come up. as mike arnzen once said (paraphrasing), we tend to restrict children from reading that which makes *us* uncomfortable…and the reason it usually makes us uncomfortable is that we *enjoy* it and we think it’s wrong to enjoy it, so we don’t want them to know.

    whew. sorry for rambling…

  5. Sherwood Smith on #

    I am very against self-named authority figures banning books. If I think a kid might be hurt (emotionally) by content in something, sometimes I discuss it obliquely with the kid–or the parent, if it’s a controlling parent.

    I once got reamed by a mother for showing the first half of the sixties Camelot. (I didn’t show the second half–the sixth graders would have been lost.) I stood there and took it, and did not tell the mother that her precious angel spends the night with the girls who will show her films she wants to see. (Mom was quite odious about how her angel only sees G-rated Disney movies to preserve her innocence, and how dare I choose the time for her to be exposed to the horrors of adults…blah blah…and here I’m thinking, honey, that horse left the barn at least in fourth grade–two years ago.)

    Like you said, the kids who are curious will find their ways to learn about the world. Why not let them explore–and be there for questions? A whole lot of wrong notions can be thus smoothed out. It was the same when I was young–we girls knew we would be severely punished if we dared to ask any questions whatsoever. Our =thoughts= were supposed to be ladylike! So we carried some damn weird notions from schoolyard disinformation for a loooooong time!

  6. Little Willow on #

    As I posted at Jennifer’s LJ, there is definitely a difference between discretion and banning. There are books which are crude for crude’s sake, books that are politicially incorrect to push buttons, books that are satirical, books that are dystopic, books that are myopic, books that have actions without consequences, books with actions AND consequences, books to make people think and discuss.

    I can’t stand it when people judge a book based on its cover, jacket summary, and other people’s opinions. Read it for yourself, THEN decide if it is a good book, a good story, a good writing. Concerned that it might not be appropriate for your children, your students, your library? Read it for yourself, then decide. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t pass judgment.

    One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. I don’t care for romances. I don’t care for westerns. I’m not going to stop anyone else from reading them, and I’m not going to tell those people that they read “bad” books. Our interests are different. Neither person has selected genres which are “better” than the other. Different readers, different tastes. (The eyes can taste?)

    I also think that it is insane to make silly rules based on general ages or grade levels (“You are 12, and you can’t read this until you are 13” or “This book is too difficult for a fifth-grader”) because the reader’s age isn’t the only thing to consider; one must also consider his or her emotional maturity and reading level. There are 8 year olds who can read, retain, and understand The NeverEnding Story and The Tale of Two Cities. There are 18 year olds who can’t. There are those who can read words but not understand them.

    Should an 8 year old read a book filled with profanity and adult situations? I wouldn’t recommend it. Should that same kid see a movie filled with the same? I wouldn’t recommend that either. That’s my opinion, though. I often use the American movie rating systems to convey contents to parents, teachers and librarians who want to know if a book is appropriate for their children and/or students.

    As far as that goes – appropriateness – I am asked, “Is this racy/naughty/nasty?” FAR more often than, “Is it violent?” Some more assumptions people make, be they right, wrong, or a bit of both, that I hear: “He can’t read fantasy books because they all have magic/witchcraft/violence.” “Teen books are all probably racy/raunchy, because all the trendy ones are like that.” “She can’t read this (book in teen fiction) because she’s not a teenager yet.” “I can’t read this (book in teen fiction) because I’m not a teenager any more.”

    Read the book because it’s interesting to you – because it’s a good book – because it sounds delightful – because it sounds intriguing – because you want to imagine, to learn, to belong, to consider, to challenge yourself, to dream, to wish, to cheer, to think, NOT to think, to escape. Read what you want to read. Read BECAUSE you want to read.

    I ranted a lot here, didn’t I? 🙂

  7. Rebecca on #

    “Should people read books before they rush to ban ’em?”
    Yes. Banning a book without bothering to read it means the person doing the banning doesn’t actually give a crap about why he/she is banning the book. Rather, he/she is on a power trip. Unfortunately, lots of people with power like abusing it, and that includes moron principals/school board members/parents. And under no circumstances do I believe it is appropriate to ban a book entirely.

    Adults think that the more they shelter kids, the better off kids will be. They start telling the kids what to think and what’s appropriate. But it just doesn’t work. I know, because I’ve been there and done that. When parents try to be too controlling, their kids will find a way around it, if they want something badly enough. Part of being a parent means making responsible parenting decisions. Censorship is not responsible. Eventually, kids are going to find out whatever it is their parents are trying to protect them from, and when they do, would the parents rather they find out from some random source or from the people who raised them, the people that the kids trust? When kids are faced with a dicey issue, it’s much healthier if they feel like they can go to their parents and talk about it, rather than keeping it to themselves. I’m not saying that parents should let their kids do whatever they want. But they need to be responsible and informed when deciding what they allow their kids to be exposed to. They also need to figure out that they are only responsible for their children, and that they have no right banning other people’s kids from anything. Finally, they need to learn to recognize when their kids are too old for any kind of censorship. Banning books (and whatever else) is like pretending that the issues and realities they address don’t exist. If people try to ignore a problem, sooner or later, it’ll come back to bite them in the arse.

  8. Carbonelle on #

    The distinction between school and public libraries, in the United States at any rate, is a fairly important one.

    As you point out: it’s difficult to reach a consensus about which book should be put out of reach of any given child and for how long–? That is, you infer, properly the job of the adult trusted to do the job: the parent, or parent-equivalent. And, as you’ve also noted, public librarians Are Not Your Parents. (As if we wanted to be. Bleah–!)

    But! And! In the U.S. schools are considered to be in loco parentis for children who are required to be there. Thus, for better or worse, they are the childrens’ parents, collectively. Oi.

    Much hilarity ensues.

    It’s unkind and unfair to give these school librarians too hard a time for making careful and cautious choices. Especially, here in the U.S. where public libraries are more common the McDonalds.

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