To read or not to read?

I read an article on cnn.com recently which for some reason shocked me more than it probably should have. The question “Are these books banned from your library or school?” popped up on my Twitter feed and, being naturally curious about controversy, I immediately clicked away. I was not sure what to expect as I read that September 20 – 28th is “Banned Books Week” in the United States; what sorts of books end up on this kind of list in 2013?

The article helpfully began by explaining the origin of “Banned Books Week” – in 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled that 1st amendment rights were violated by school library bans of Kurt Vonneguts’s Slaughterhouse Five. (I have never read Slaughterhouse Five, but it is now officially on my list)

According to the article, the main reason for “challenges” of a book (apparently this is a euphemism for book banning) are “sexually explicit content and offensive language”. Despite the vagueness of this criteria, let me stop here and say: I get it. Parents want to protect their children and preserve their “innocence” for as long as possible. But…in a world with as much tragedy and depravity as ours, I’m not sure that challenging a book called “Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets” is the best battle to fight (yes, this was reportedly one of the most challenged books of 2012, according to cnn.com). Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of the Captain Underpants series but really… how bad can they be???

Anyhow, I was particularly moved, indignant even, when I saw that Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner was the subject of a challenge in 2012 because “the novel depicts rape in graphic detail and uses vulgar language”.

Yes, it may be true that there is a particularly disturbing scene in the novel. But this book is, quite simply, one of the most touching, insightful and challenging books I have ever read. It stays with you long after you have put it down. It offers a glimpse inside a country and a culture that is literally and figuratively foreign to many of us in the Western world, but Mr. Hosseini’s writing draws you in and connects you to his characters through the commonalities of humanity which we all share – love, grief, shame, fear and anger. I cannot imagine preventing students from reading and discussing a book this powerful simply because some (very) bad things happen within its pages. Particularly in a classroom environment where there is an adult to monitor and guide students as they process and understand what they have read.

Having experienced such a visceral reaction I can accept that others probably feel the same way, albeit from the totally opposite viewpoint. That is the beauty of a society where people have the freedom to explore issues and disagree so wholeheartedly about them! In a perfect world, this leads to conversation and acceptance of the thoughts, viewpoints and sensitivities of others; that’s why it is ironic that in the case of book banning, we are deprived of the very opportunity to grow, accept and understand each other in the naming of preserving an innocence that likely never really existed in the first place.

We don’t live in bubbles.

Children go to school; they are bullied or have friends who are, they face disappointment, they fall in love, they fail, they succeed, they endure school “lockdown” drills in preparation for the next mass shooter. They deal with peer pressure and hormones and at some time don’t pretty much all of us doubt our self-worth? Sadly, bad things happen every day, to our children or to their friends or their families. They don’t have the benefit of life experiences to know that things will get better and they certainly don’t often know how to express the roller coaster of emotions that is adolescence. But its a whole lot easier to talk about the trials and tribulations of a character in a book rather than the jumble of confusion in your fourteen year-old head. And with young people, isn’t it half the battle just to get them talking at all? By banning books with powerful subject matter, aren’t we just closing one of the few doors we have into talking with our kids about the things that matter?

But despite my total opposition to the existence of it, I loved the Banned Books list. It helped me choose the next books I can’t wait to read.

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