Continuing my Banned Book Week-related thoughts, let me take the issue a little more seriously here and consider the reasons people give for challenging and seeking to ban books. They come in all shapes and sizes, of course, from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is, for instance, the decision by the Texas Board of Education to ban Bill Martin’s children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See because they mistook him for an author of a communist tract who happened to share the same name. Then there are the various attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, apparently to protect children from the knowledge that, in the past, racists operated a lot more openly than they do now.
More often than not, though, young adult and children’s books are challenged because of the presence of nudity and/or sex. Of the list of the ten most challenged books of 2010, nudity shows up as an explanation three times. ‘Sexually explicit’ shows up seven times. Add in ‘homosexuality’, and you’ve got nine out of the ten listings covered.
No parent expects or wants their child to access pornography, but more often than not, the sensitivity meters of the people behind these objections are set a little too high. It’s one thing to keep tabs on your own child’s reading (that’s responsible parenting), and it’s another to question whether a particular group is appropriate for a particular age group, but it’s a third thing to pretend, as far too many of these challengers seem to, that issues relating to sex aren’t relevant to their children.
Recently my friend and author R.J. Anderson, who is an evangelical Christian, spoke up in defence of a maligned book named Speak. She explained why eloquently in her post:
(Speak) is the farthest thing from pornography, in fact — a novel which shows the devastating effect that being raped has on an innocent teenaged girl. Not a girl who “went looking for it”, but an ordinary girl teetering on the line between childhood and adulthood, who went to her first high school party and ended up way out of her depth. It is a novel about the girl next door. A girl who could be your sister, your niece, your daughter.
The scenes dealing with rape are very carefully written. They are not excessive. They are not graphic. They are most definitely, assuredly, not titillating or gratuitous. They contain just enough information to let the reader figure out what happened — and that what is taking place is an act of violence, something that devastates and humiliates and destroys, not anything that any sane reader, boy or girl, could find appealing.
I believe Speak has a place in high school classrooms. I wish I had been given the chance to study it in school, instead of a lot of tedious adult novels about people having mid-life crises and reminiscing about the Second World War. Because I think reading Melinda’s story would have given me a better understanding of some of my classmates, if I had been aware that some of them had been through similar experiences to Melinda, and how grateful and relieved I should be that I had not. And if I had been tempted to go to parties where alcohol was being served and there was little or no parental supervision, I think reading Speak would have done a great deal to make me very cautious about doing so, or put me off the idea altogether.
Then there is author John Green’s passionate defence of his young adult book, Looking for Alaska, posted on Youtube:
Really, I could not say it better than that, but I’ll try.
I write young adult fiction because I like to read young adult fiction, and I read young adult fiction because it has a sense of wonder that many adult novels seem to lack. The world is a big and frightening and exciting place to be for children and young adults, and literature which captures that sense appeals to me. I also appreciate the drama and growth that is inherent in the coming of age story that one finds in many young adult novels.
I do not read childrens books and young adult novels because it avoids real world issues like sex and violence. Most of these novels (the better ones, anyway) don’t. Issues of sexuality and other concerns of the big bad world intrude on our children’s lives every day, and hope comes in seeing how our children and young adults rise to the occasion and learn to deal with this reality. And just as we do our children no favours by talking down to them about this reality, we do them no favours by pretending this reality doesn’t exist.
In some ways, I find that children are the most resilient humans on the planet, and I have been told that, as a young adult writer, it is perfectly okay to lead our children into the dark… so long as you lead them out again.
So, the dark has a place in our children’s and young adult literature, because the dark makes itself a place in our lives, whether we want it to or not. We can’t ignore it; we can only rise to face it. And banning it doesn’t make it go away.
It does our children no favours, either.