Banned Books Week-Some Food for Thought

We are in the middle of Banned Books Week. Every year at this time, we celebrate the freedom to read and the First Amendment.

I came across an article from the Wall Street Journal entitled "Why The Best Kids Books are Written in Blood". The author of the article is Sherman Alexie, who wrote the YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Alexie's novel won the National Book Award in 2007. The book has also been challenged by parents on the basis of offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit material, unsuited to age group, and violence. The book is semi-autobiographical.

Controversial YA books are nothing new. In my day, it was Judy Blume. A lot of her YA books dealt with puberty, adolescence, religion, and sex. Just as everyone else who has gone through puberty, I was nervous and scared and had questions about what was happening to me that my parents refused to answer. I also had questions about my faith and religion, as my parents were of different denominations and I was receiving mixed messages both in dogma and by my parents' own words and actions. I had my worries and doubts assured by Judy Blume's adolescent heroines like Margaret Simon. But I have not been twisted nor warped because I read books with controversial subject matter. I read a lot as a child. Reading was an escape for me. Reading some of Blume's and other author's YA novels also reassured me that I was not the only one whose world was tumultuous.

It does amuse me that some people feel that they must protect other people's children and impose their own ideas and notions on them. As Alexie asserts in his article, it's too late for that. I think that the people who challenge books because they don't fit their ideal of what life should be live in a dream world. They would rather stick their heads in the sand and pretend that problems like the ones highlighted in YA books don't exist. They don't like that their child might be exposed to something that they don't want to have to explain and complain that they don't have a choice, so they want to remedy that by telling my child what he can and cannot read? Where I come from, that's called hypocrisy.

The world is not perfect. Everyone is not happy, nor do they believe the same as you. The world is not an innocent place nor a safe place, and sadly, many kids find this out long before they are even old enough to read a book like Alexie's. I was one of those kids. I learned hard lessons about people and trust at a young age.

Instead of trying to ban books because they don't fit within someone's narrow worldview, why not spend that energy and time to fix the problems of poverty, crime, or sub-standard schools? Why not be a mentor and a positive role model in a young person's life? Sadly, these people won't because they would rather not have to deal with subjects that make them uncomfortable. Because they would rather be told what to think, and it is important to them to be good little followers, they see nothing wrong with telling the rest of us what to think and expect us to be good little followers as well.

As a parent, I don't approve of book banning because it is not someone else's right to tell me what I can and can't allow my child to read. That is my decision as a parent.

We have a problem, especially lately, that people have forgotten how to think for themselves. People don't want to be challenged, either. They would rather gravitate towards pundits and books and programs that just reinforce their own beliefs. To me, this unwillingness to think, to reject the status quo, and to not be afraid to question things is why we are in the straits we are in. Knowledge is power. And that is what the book banners are afraid of.

I know from my own experience that while it is uncomfortable to be faced with something that can challenge you and make you feel ill at ease, it is very important to challenge yourself in this way.

Last year, when we were headed towards Rapid City and the Black Hills of South Dakota on vacation, we stopped in the town of Wall. Of course, we stopped at the ubiquitous Wall Drug. Before we jumped back on I-90 towards Rapid, we stopped at the Wounded Knee Museum. This museum is an interpretive museum that is devoted to telling the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre from the Native American point of view. When you visit, you start at the beginning, where you get a history of US Government and Native relations up to that point. Then the museum tells the story of the Wounded Knee massacre itself.

I walked out of that museum unable to say a word because I had such mixed emotions. One of these emotions was guilt. Although my ancestors did not personally participate in this, I still felt somewhat responsible and found myself wishing to make amends for this because it was my "people" that did this to another group of people. Even though I went on with my trip and then went back to Wisconsin, my visit to that museum really stayed with me. I still felt that I had to do something, anything, to let those people know that not only was I sorry for what had been done to them by my forebears, but that I think that what my forebears did was wrong.

That "something" ended up being learning as much as I could about Native American culture and history. I can't go back in time and prevent what happened from happening. But I can learn as much as I can in order to understand where they are coming from and who they are. When we understand where the other is coming from, only then can we ever find common ground. Common ground is a necessary component to resolving conflict. When we hold on to our ideas so tightly and are not open to the possibility that another person's ideas are just as valid, it renders us incapable of truly finding solutions to our problems. Our insistence on clinging to ideology at all costs will be our downfall.

Go out and read a banned or challenged book. Read something, anything that will challenge you and will make you think. Writers are truth tellers. They are the ones who are willing to hold up the mirror to the rest of the world. We owe it to ourselves to look into that mirror. Instead of running from what we see, we need to either own it, accept and live with it, or change it.

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