It's Wednesday, which means we're smack dab in the middle of Banned Books Week!
I personally have mixed feelings about banned books. On the one hand, I'm vehemently against book banning because it disproportionately affects books by and about marginalized people. On the other hand, if it weren't for the Banned Books List, I may not have ever discovered some of the best books I've ever read! There's nothing like being told not to do something to make you want to do it.
Well, I'm a reading rebel. With good reason.
I read banned books because I know that banning books silences voices that need to be heard. I read banned books because I know the human experience comes in many packages and that by banning books about certain experiences, we're saying "I wish you and your 'problems' would just go away."
When you hear about books being banned or challenged, it's usually because a particular book was either required reading at a school or on prominent display in the local library's young adult section and a parent didn't want their child to read it.
Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been challenged in high schools across the country because the male protagonist takes two paragraphs to discuss masturbation.
Persepolis, a graphic memoir about a girl growing up in Iran, has been challenged for "promoting the Muslim agenda."
The Kite Runner has been challenged because it depicts a violent rape.
And Tango Makes Three, a children's book about a penguin that grows up with two dads has been challenged for being "anti-family."
And, more recently, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been challenged because a mother deemed that a passage where Henrietta finds a tumor on her cervix to be "pornography" for his 10th grade son.
I could go on. The people wanting these books banned are loud and have no trouble getting the attention of the school district officials, library board members, local media, and even national media.
They say they want the books banned for reasons related to the supposedly unsuitable nature of the content, but what they're really saying is:
- I refuse to acknowledge that high school students have figured out how to masturbate.
- I refuse to believe that not all Muslims are terrorists and that the extremists are the minority. (Much like how people who want books banned are in the minority! Alas, despite my efforts to diminish their humanity, we have something in common!)
- I refuse to believe that people, even sometimes kids, experience rape, despite statistics that say 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will be raped in their lifetime.
- I refuse to believe that two men are capable of having a family and raising a happy, healthy child.
- I refuse to acknowledge that gynecology is not the same thing as pornography. Instead I'd rather assume that any reference to a woman's anatomy must be purely for the sexual gratification of men because all men are uncontrollable sexual predators and women are hardly more than objects with which they can gratify themselves. Oh, and somehow reading about a woman finding a tumor on her uterus is sexy.
The comments over age-appropriateness of certain books as a reason they should be banned is similarly ridiculous. No one is giving The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian to elementary school kids. It's been given to high schoolers. Same with Persepolis, The Kite Runner, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and others. If you think your child is going to learn about these issues for the very first time as a high schooler reading these books, you must not remember much about conversations on school busses and at lunch tables.
Parents' wails that they don't want their children exposed to such "vulgarities" are a failed attempt to live in an impossible dream. Parents don't want their children to grow up---they don't want to accept that this being they brought into the world and changed diapers for is now older and has knows about the acts that created him. Parents want to believe that their little ones will be little forever.
But that's not how life works. And even if your child isn't gay or isn't Muslim or has never masturbated or never been raped, that doesn't mean that your child doesn't know what these things are. More importantly, just because your child may not experience these things doesn't mean that other children haven't.
We can all agree that books can change lives. Then imagine a survivor of rape where you're told to never talk about it for fear of what people may think or the Muslim kids in a close-knit conservative community. Imagine being that kid and never being assigned books that resonate with you---books with characters who don't look like you and who don't share your experiences.
Then imagine being assigned a book in school that does resonate with you. You feel heard, you feel understood. And because reading has been scientifically proven to increase empathy in readers, maybe people treat you a little better too. For the majority---straight white Christian people, especially those who haven't experienced a trauma like rape---we rarely if ever have to experience what it's like to be treated like an outsider. We're rarely treated in a way that attempts to diminish our humanity.
But for people outside the majority, they feel society's marginalization and can feel like an outsider every day of their lives. And no matter what excuses are given, you can't pretend other people's realties don't exist just because you don't want your kids reading about it.
Furthermore, if you don't want your child reading a particular book, that's fine. But don't try to take that reading experience away from others. You're a parent to your own child, not everyone else's.
My hope is that one day people will understand that you can't make the things you don't like about the world go away by banning books. Racism happens. Don't pretend it doesn't. Gay people exist. Get over it. People kill themselves. It's a thing that happens. Muslims are not all terrorists. Accept it. Kids sometimes drink, smoke, have sex, and sometimes fantasize about sex when they're not having it. And there's nothing wrong with them. Book banners have to stop acting like these realities are taboo and not reflective of the human experience.
Ultimately, people have more in common than they have division. By refusing to acknowledge the significance of others' experiences, we're building walls. We're pointing a finger at someone who doesn't look like us, believe like us, and love like us and saying "You're not like us. You don't belong." The fact is that their reality is more important than the bubble you choose to live in.
That's why I read banned books.
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