Dear Book Banners,
First of all, let me thank you for all the hard work you do. Without you, we wouldn’t be celebrating Banned Books Week in the first place! Just plain “Books Week” is much less exciting. By trying to get books banned from schools and libraries, you confer a degree of sexiness and danger on us that we might not otherwise have. Wait, do I sound sarcastic? I’m trying not to be sarcastic, Book Banners. I sincerely believe that you are trying to do the right thing, in your own mind, and I admire that. I’m not saying I want to hang out with you, but I get where you’re coming from. You want to protect kids and make the world better for them. So do I, and though I disagree about your methods, I think there’s a good number of issues we can agree on.
For one thing, we both agree that books are powerful! Every time you get up in front of a school board or town council and petition them to take a book off the shelves, you’re reminding us of the power and importance of books. You inspire us to start a dialogue about what books are and what books should be, and whether they should describe the world as it is or the world as it could be, and who should be allowed to read or restrict which books. These are interesting, often enlightening, conversations that frequently motivate people to go read the very books you’re trying to ban. Which is great! Anything you can do to get people talking about and reading books helps us all.
For another thing, we both agree that parents should know what their kids are reading. But while you seem to think parents should know so they can know when to take a book away from their kids, lest any dangerous ideas seep into a child’s brain, I think parents should know what their kids are reading so they can know when to swoop in and ask, “Do you have any questions? What did you think about the scene where the protagonist did that shocking thing? Have you ever heard of anyone doing that in real life?” Books can be great springboards for discussions, especially about issues that might be too hard or scary or weird to talk about in real life – a veil of fiction can give children that extra layer of safety to ask big questions. I used to teach 7th and 8th grade English, and we would have discussions like that a lot. Kids asked me questions like “Why did Hitler hate the Jews so much?” and “Why did the jury think Tom Robinson was guilty when Atticus proved he couldn’t have committed the crime?” and “What is rape?” and “Why would a society choose to stop feeling love and pain?” Are those scary questions for children to ask? Sure. Are they important questions for children to be asking? Absolutely.
We do seem to disagree, Book Banners, on children’s intelligence, wit, and strength of character. You seem to think that one stray reference to witchcraft or masturbation will shatter a child’s world forever. I think children are stronger and smarter than that. I think that kids can read about all kinds of things without immediately running out and doing those things – for instance, I read Native Son when I was fifteen, and to this day I have never beheaded a white girl and stuffed her body in a furnace. I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was fourteen and I’ve never had an awkward encounter with a prostitute. I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eleven and have not yet managed to become a time-traveling witch (though maybe one day…).
Though we don’t always agree, Book Banners, I do admire your passion and tenacity, particularly in the era of online bookstores. Trying to restrict or ban a book is mostly a symbolic gesture in our culture, one that doesn’t honestly do much for your cause but which does a lot for ours. You remind us to love and honor books and of their significance in our lives, past and present. You remind us of the strength and beauty of the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, and you remind us how lucky we are to live in a society that treasures such a right. And by your vehemence – even by your professed disgust and hatred! – you remind us, in the words of Elie Wiesel, that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. I thank you for not being indifferent.
This post originally ran on The Debutante Ball blog, September 28, 2011.