A couple of weeks ago the entire world celebrated Banned Books Week. Okay maybe not the entire world, but a lot of librarians and English teachers did. Banned Books Week usually involves such activities as handing out bookmarks and challenging students to select and read a book from a list of commonly banned books. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. There are a lot of books on these lists that I have either bought for my children, read to them, or that I hope they will read one day. I have wonderful memories of crying, no sobbing, with my kids when we read Bridge to Terabithia and Charlott’s Web. In my English classes, I have taught Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and Lord of the Flies. The Giver and Harry Potter are among my children’s favorite books. And, while certainly not my favorite, my eldest daughter has read nearly all of John Green ‘s books.
The fact is, it’s hard to imagine why many of these books were ever banned. It’s just crazy. But the crazy thing about the Banned Books Week movement is that proponents of the movement would have us believe that school libraries should be allowed to provide young people with literally any book out there without having to justify the appropriateness of the book. Any attempt to use discernment or determine age appropriateness is decried as censorship. And those who call into question a librarian’s choices are considered a threat to intellectual freedom.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating government censorship or that books be banned from public libraries. But as a mother and a tax payer, I would like to think that when I send my children to school, they will not happen across books in the school library that include passages like this one from Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban (which is actually a Common Core recommended text for 10th graders).
“Hugo and Felicia stripped in their room, dissolving easily into one another, and made love against the whitewashed walls. Hugo bit Felicia’s breast and left purplish bands of bruises on her upper thighs. He knelt before her in the tub and massaged black Spanish soap between her legs. He entered her repeatedly from behind.
“Felicia learned what pleased him. She tied his arms above his head with their underclothing and slapping him sharply when he asked.
“‘You’re my bitch,’” Hugo said, groaning.
According to the good folks at the American Library Association, any attempt to restrict this novel, or anything libraries choose to make available to children, is a violation of the First Amendment. The ALA lists Fifty Shades of Grey as one of the most commonly challenged books of 2013, but according to the ALA, a child’s right to read this book should be protected. This is apparently more important than protecting children from pornography.
I realize that censorship is a slippery slope. At least that’s what the Banned Books people want us to fear. If we ban Fifty Shades of Grey, what’s to stop us from banning every book with any sexual content whatsoever? Censorship is such a loaded word. It implies a secret plot to restrict ideas or knowledge or a Big Brother-like control over information. But what we are really talking about is limits. And don’t schools limit kids already? Students are not allowed to curse in school. They cannot make racially insensitive statements. They aren’t allowed to watch sexually explicit films in class – even those based on a classic novel. When, where, and how they can pray is restricted. And most schools have some form of a dress code in place. All of these rules restrict (censor) students’ freedom of expression is some way. Can you imagine a high school or middle school where kids were allowed to express themselves absolutely any way they wanted too?
Still, the slippery slope concerns are valid. Obviously book banning can get out of hand. Many books that are now considered classroom and childhood staples have at one time been challenged. Yet, should we really advocate, indeed celebrate, the notion that our children can potentially have access to books with virtually any content with no adult discernment as to the appropriateness of those books?
Where things get tricky is when people challenge books based on their own personal beliefs. Just because some people don’t believe that children should read books about witches and wizards, doesn’t mean the library should ban all Harry Potter books. Some people might feel that children should not read books that encourage them to challenge authority. That does not mean we need to ban Animal Farm. I get it. Discerning books is a delicate matter because what seems like a harmless story to one family might be considered gravely sinful by another.
Still, even with all the challenges involved with book restrictions, can’t we at least strive for some standard of decency? That’s all I’m asking for. A standard of decency. Can’t we at least agree that there are some things a child or young teenager should not be exposed to? Even the film industry does that much. How about this? If the contents of a book would warrant an R rating as film, then maybe it should not be made available to 14 year olds. It’s radical, I know.
It might not be easy. Sometimes we might ere too much on the side of caution. But the alternative is no standard of decency. To me, that is a much more frightening prospect than the notion that my children’s freedom will somehow be violated because their public school denied them access to porn.
Disclaimer: This is in no way a condemnation of librarians. My own children’s schools are staffed by thinking, sensitive librarians who seek to provide our kids with the best possible age-appropriate literature. We are grateful to have them.
Image credits in order of appearance…
The Giver is a dystopian novel set around the life of a young boy, Jonah, and his community. In this community everything is regulated – careers, family size, emotion, even the temperature. At the age 12, when all children are assigned to their life’s work, Jonah is given the job of The Giver. The Giver is the one person entrusted with all the memories of humanity. For decades all other citizens have been denied knowledge of the pain, fear, and joy people experienced before the community was “perfected.” They are given only “the sameness.” The job of The Giver is both beautiful and torturous. It also gives Jonah an understanding that no one else in his community could possibly have – an understanding that makes it impossible to go back to the content, secure life he knew before.
The Giver is not exactly pop fiction. It has been a classic staple in American middle school classrooms since it won The Newberry Award in 1994. I decided to read it because my younger daughter was reading it for school. I don’t read everything she reads, but I knew The Giver was considered a classic for a reason. I just didn’t know what the reason was.
I was blown away by this novel. The parallels between Jonah’s community and our modern culture are chilling. The people of Jonah’s community possess the technology to regulate everything. This allows them to avoid pain, but it also costs them any true joy. It robs them of any real attachment to others and of a conscience. While our modern technology isn’t quite that all-pwerful, it can be spectacularly numbing. There is a particular scene in the novel that drives this point home dramatically. I don’t want to give anything away, but the scene illustrates how seemingly decent people can commit horrific acts of cruelty and violence because these acts are the societal norm.
The Giver is a must for young readers, but it should be coupled with discussion. There is a movie version of The Giver coming out starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. Parent and kids will likely want to read and discuss the book before seeing the Hollywood version of this story.
LANGUAGE – No. It’s a perfect world, no need to curse.
VIOLENCE – The people in this novel live in near perfect harmony, but not with out eliminating some problems. There is so graphic violence, but there is at least one disturbing scene.
SEXUALCONTENT– The “stirrings” of the adolescent citizens are controlled with medication. Some parents might want to discuss what is meant by “stirrings.”
SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS – None
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Why do you think dystopian literature so popular?
2. Is there something appealing about living in a pleasant world with no pain, or does it sound too boring?
3. What do the people of the community lose by having “the sameness?”
4. Do you think Jonah’s parent’s love him?
5. Why is what happens to Baby Gabe so disturbing and shocking?
6. Why would being The Giver be so hard? Would you rather to be a Giver with all that knowledge or a community member living in blissful ignorance?
7. Why is free will essential to being truly good, happy, or free?
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”
“We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”
“I liked the feeling of love,’ [Jonas] confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. ‘I wish we still had that,’ he whispered. ‘Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.”
“It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘the whole world’ or ‘generations before him.’I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.”