Do You Let Your Kids Read Banned Books?


Just try writing about banned books wBBW-logohile using WiFi at a government building. That’s what I did yesterday while serving on jury duty at our local courthouse. I figured I might not get called to an actual jury panel, so I settled in to the jurors’ waiting room (read, holding cell) to draft a blog post. I was ready for my new topic: literary censorship, in honor of Banned Books Week. This event, hosted by the American Library Association, is the perfect time to celebrate our right to read.

Yet, soon after I started writing, whenever I attempted to save my electronic draft I got a strange message from the courthouse’s network server:

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.43.18 AM

I’m not sure what raised the red flags in the system’s WiFi and prevented me from getting back to my blog: the book titles I was writing about, the bold word “banned” in the title of my blog post, or perhaps the combination of “banned” with “kids” in the same phrase. Whatever the case, there was something the government didn’t like about my exploration of this topic. And that made me want to write about it all the more once I was officially dismissed from jury duty and the Big Brother–like confines of the courthouse.

In the decade spanning 2000 to 2009, more than 5,000 book challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Face it, folks—the threat of censorship is alive and well in the 21st century. Fortunately, due to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and reasonable citizens, most challenges to books prove unsuccessful.

According to the American Library Association, “a challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” While a challenge means that a person or group attempts to remove or restrict books, banning happens only when the books actually get removed from a library or a school curriculum. Over the course of history, some of our most treasured books have been banned: The Great Gatsby, Beloved, A Scarlet Letter, Leaves of Grass, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, Where the Wild Things Are.  Many of them are the very same books that the Library of Congress chose for its 2012 exhibit Books That Shaped AmericaThey are books that have shaped who we are as a country, as citizens, as readers and thinkers.

These days, the reasons books get challenged are many, though you can probably name the usual suspects: offensive language, sexually explicit material, the occult, homosexuality, and religious views. Other reasons for challenges include objections to books because they contain vices like drugs, drinking, and gambling, or accusations that certain works are anti-family, racist, or sexist. The most recent book challenge to make the news is from Randolph County, North Carolina, where, just last week, the School Board of Education voted 5-2 to ban Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from county school libraries after a parent of an 11th-grader complained that its language and subject matter made it inappropriate for high school summer reading. The Board agreed with the parent that it was “too much for teenagers.” (It is heartening to hear that the school board has since called a special meeting to reconsider its decision, in light of community backlash.)

And that recent news headline brings me to the most disturbing part of the statistics from the American Library Association regarding banned books (all of which you can find on the ALA’s website). As the ALA explains, and this real-life example proves, the majority of the challenges against books come from one source: parents—and by a large margin. Just take a look at this chart:

challenges by initiator 1990-99 and 2000-09_v1

Courtesy of the American Library Association and based on the Office of Intellectual Freedom.

So, more than churches and politicians, more than government officials and lobbyists, parents are the ones we have to thank for continuing the campaign of censorship in the United States. To see what some parents have been up to over the past decade or so, take a look below at the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000 to 2009, per the ALA. You’ll recognize far too many titles on this list. You likely own your fair share of them, you’ve probably read a few of them to your children, and you’ve had copies of them come home from your kids’ school library.

I’m delighted to say that my own children have read many books on this list, and that our home is peopled with many of these characters. These characters have been a part of our family life, and I’ve watched my kids respond and relate to them in all different ways. Captain Underpants makes my 5-year-old guffaw, and then plead to return to the library for the next book in the series. Last year, when my son read about Leslie Burke’s death in Bridge to Terabithia, he cried himself to sleep as if he was Jess Aarons, the best friend Leslie left behind. And just last night, I relented to an extra 10 minutes of reading so that my 8-year-old daughter could find out, with Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, what lies inside the Chamber of Secrets.

Don’t get me wrong—good parents should practice censorship. But they should do it at home, for their own children. Reasonable parents need to control what their kids read and when they read it. Young readers probably shouldn’t try Judy Blume’s Blubber until they are old enough to understand emotional bullying. Preteens and teens aren’t ready for The Giver until they can differentiate between the real world and a dystopian one. And you might not choose  Junie B. Jones for your preschoolers until they have a pretty strong grasp of correct grammar, as opposed to Junie B. speak.

No wonder some people want to ban books. Censorship is born of fear—the fear that we might encounter something different, something that challenges us, something that could even change us. In that banned favorite To Kill a Mockingbird, young Scout Finch puts her finger on the experience that a great book can give us: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” Books allow us to do that very thing—stand in another person’s shoes, try them on, and walk around in them for a little while. That’s why books are so powerful and why words carry weight.

Happy Banned Books Week to all! Leave a comment if you’ve read or enjoyed any of these or other challenged books.

Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000 to 2009

1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
11. Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
12. It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
13. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
14. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
15. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
16. Forever, by Judy Blume
17. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
18. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
19. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
20. King and King, by Linda de Haan
21. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
22. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
23. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
24. In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak
25. Killing Mr. Griffen, by Lois Duncan
26. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
27. My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier
28. Bridge To Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
29. The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney
30. We All Fall Down, by Robert Cormier
31. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
32. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
33. Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
34. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
35. Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison
36. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
37. It’s So Amazing, by Robie Harris
38. Arming America, by Michael Bellasiles
39. Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane
40. Life is Funny, by E.R. Frank
41. Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher
42. The Fighting Ground, by Avi
43. Blubber, by Judy Blume
44. Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher
45. Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly
46. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
47. The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby: The First Graphic Novel by George Beard and Harold Hutchins, creators of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey
48. Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez
49. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
50. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
51. Daughters of Eve, by Lois Duncan
52. The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson
53. You Hear Me?, by Betsy Franco
54. The Facts Speak for Themselves, by Brock Cole
55. Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Green
56. When Dad Killed Mom, by Julius Lester
57. Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause
58. Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going
59. Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes
60. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
61. Draw Me A Star, by Eric Carle
62. The Stupids (series), by Harry Allard
63. The Terrorist, by Caroline B. Cooney
64. Mick Harte Was Here, by Barbara Park
65. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
66. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor
67. A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
68. Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez
69. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
70. Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen
71. Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park
72. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
73. What’s Happening to My Body Book, by Lynda Madaras
74. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
75. Anastasia (series), by Lois Lowry
76. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
77. Crazy: A Novel, by Benjamin Lebert
78. The Joy of Gay Sex, by Dr. Charles Silverstein
79. The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss
80. A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Newton Peck
81. Black Boy, by Richard Wright
82. Deal With It!, by Esther Drill
83. Detour for Emmy, by Marilyn Reynolds
84. So Far From the Bamboo Grove, by Yoko Watkins
85. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher
86. Cut, by Patricia McCormick
87. Tiger Eyes, by Judy Blume
88. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
89. Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissenger
90. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
91. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
92. The Boy Who Lost His Face, by Louis Sachar
93. Bumps in the Night, by Harry Allard
94. Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine
95. Shade’s Children, by Garth Nix
96. Grendel, by John Gardner
97. The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
98. I Saw Esau, by Iona Opte
99. Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
100. America: A Novel, by E.R. Frank

11 Comments

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  1. 3
    Kathleen Dunn

    My kid’s school sent home a form, telling us they were reading Catcher in the Rye next, and if you did not want your child to read it, just let them know and they’ll assign a different book. How nice and sensible is that? No need to get school boards involved to ban books for the entire school. Just a little common sense.

  2. 4
    Lady @The Snail on the Wall

    Kathleen, that does seem like a reasonable approach, and I’d hope that most parents—given the choice—would let their child read it. Another option for parents is to read the book along with the child, and then discuss it together. Thanks for commenting!

  3. 5
    Patricia

    I do not censor my children’s reading. If it interests them, then they are free to read it. If it is something with content that I think we might need to discuss then I leave that door open. I have read and enjoyed many books on this list and there are some that I can tell I would not enjoy. Seems to me that we all need to be able to reach the decision on what we or our children read in the home. I seem to recall that the Nazi’s banned books and thus free thought.

    • 6
      Lady @The Snail on the Wall

      That’s pretty much our policy at home, too. If my child shows enough interest in a book to want to read it, then I believe they’re ready for it. We may need to talk about some things as they read or afterward, but that just means they’re learning something in the process. Thanks for your views!

  4. 7
    billc242013

    Thanks for a great blog. This whole topic is a bit depressing for me because I think of all the books that are pre-censored …never ordered, or purchased, or written due to anticipation of angry parents and censorship. I feel that before a school board or library board can consider banning a book, or a parent suggest it, they must read that book. I suspect that rarely happens. Thank you for your delightful blog!

    • 8
      Lady @The Snail on the Wall

      You’re right, and I believe the recent situation in North Carolina is a case in point. Based on the news reports, those school board members had very little first-hand knowledge of Ellison’s book, even though they had the authority to pass judgment on it.

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