In honor of Banned Books Week this week, I challenge all of you to read a banned book or comic/graphic novel. And I challenge all writers to write the stories that need telling. Don’t shy away what needs saying out of fear of censorship.
When I was an English teacher, I lost track of how many parents screamed at me and tried to have me fired because their 7th or 8th grade young adult encountered real world events like war, prejudice, censorship, puberty, drugs, divorce, other cultures/religions, and so on, through reading. While many schools I taught in were Title I schools, they were in the Bible Belt, which meant than anything that painted the world in non-rose-colored brush strokes, was not just bad, but evil.
For example, parents were outraged that their children were exposed to murder and teenage pregnancy in The Outsiders. Of course, I was the type to point out that murder, incest, rape, teenage pregnancy, and more are all found in the Bible, which these students read regularly. This, of course, only made parents angrier. We had parents who wanted the Harry Potter series gathered up in the millions (of copies) and burned because it contained magic, but then they flocked to the theaters to support The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe, which also contains magic. But this isn’t to say every religious parent screamed in outrage. Many were very supportive of exposing their children to reality and helping their children make better decisions when faced with such diversity and adversity.
Considering how many students I taught whose parents were known gang members, drug dealers, or hookers, or how many of my students dealt drugs to feed their brothers and sisters, or how many were in and out of juvy or jail, these weren’t new ideas for these kids (though in all honesty, it wasn’t the poor kids’ parents who complained. It was the privileged in my Pre-AP and Gifted & Talented classes). We had pregnant middle school students in our school, drugs, kids whose family members committed suicide or were murdered, and students who drank and drive and died. Real life was happening already, all around them.
My favorite part of the school year was Banned Books Week and later in the year when I taught Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. (And would you believe the number of parents who tossed a fit because they thought the book was Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore? Oy!) The level of critical thinking that happens when a child is faced with viewpoints opposing their own is crucial for child development. Never did I tell a child what to think. I showed them how to think–to consider all possible viewpoints and research, and then come to a decision on their own. And their decisions were solely their own.
The majority of my students come back, years later, and thank me for teaching them this much needed skill. It makes it worth the chaos that comes with being an English teacher in today’s society. I’ve been accused of witchcraft (because I wore a black dress), of sacrificing animals on my classroom floor for Satan (because I have a CD of classical piano music, some of which is written in a minor key. Watch out Debussy!), of promoting homosexuality in students (because I defended an LGBTQ student against bullying), of making children turn away from God (if I have that power, there are bigger issues here, don’t you think?), and of making waves because I stood up against bullying.
Every time a parent screamed and cussed in my face, or threatened to have me fired, or worse, threatened me with physical harm, all over the reading of Shakespeare, Bradbury, S. E. Hinton, Charles Dickens, or freaking Greek Mythology, I pushed forward. Intelligence cannot be suppressed. The louder they yelled, the less likely they were to be heard.
Now that I’m a writer, it’s my job to set people free from the constraints that fight to keep them mentally impoverished. Reading is what makes us an intelligent society, a thinking and caring society. There’s an entire world out there full of people different from me, fascinating people who, for all of their differences, are still human. For all our differences, we are so very much alike. And so I challenge you all–find those people. Find those similarities. Read about worlds not your own, struggles not your own, and open your eyes to the world around you.
Go read a banned book. It will change your world.
This year’s Challenged & Banned Book List can be found here.
You can see the list from year to year at the bottom of this page.
You can see a list of Banned Classics here. This year, Banned Books Week is celebrating graphic novels and recognizing their importance and their censorship. You can read more on that here.