What Censorship Teaches Kids

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]There are lots of ways censorship sinks its teeth into the YA community. My favorite tell-it-like-it-is author and poet Ellen Hopkins was recently uninvited from a teen book festival in Humble, TX because a parent objected to the content of her books (and apparently to Ellen as a person). Conversely, TWENTY BOY SUMMER was just challenged (and possibly pulled — still waiting for more details) in a high school library not because someone objected to the content, but because “the title sounds promiscuous.” Last summer, sections of Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE were taken out of context and “dinged” by a consumer media group linked from the Barnes & Noble site for “mature content” that wasn’t mature content at all. And I can’t quite figure out why Sherman Alexie’s beautiful, honest, funny, heartbreaking book THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN was yanked off the shelves in Stockton, Missouri high schools. Because of jokes about masturbation and a few curse words? Because of its unflinching look at racism and classism in a culture whose very existence much of white America would rather stereotype or not acknowledge at all?

*Scratches head.*

Often times the self-proclaimed concerned parents and teachers who initiate book challenges, bans, and other forms of censorship mistakenly believe that they’re protecting children from exposure to something dangerous or harmful, as if the words themselves could “inspire” kids to try meth or commit suicide or sleep around. I mean, I grew up watching movies like COMMANDO and I never had the urge to kidnap Alyssa Milano or gun down a bunch of ex-army henchman (though I’m known to use the phrase “Let off some steam, Bennett!” at the most inappropriate times, if we’re being honest…*cough*), but that’s just me.

I guess today’s “concerned parents” must imagine conversations like this:

  • Innocent teen girl #1: “Oh girl, my mom let me read TWENTY BOY SUMMER last night. I think she’s telling me that I should go have sex with twenty guys! I wasn’t planning on it, but once I saw that title, my plans changed! Bow-chica-wow-wow!”
  • Innocent teen girl #2: “Aw hell yeah! You should definitely do it! My school librarian gave me a copy of CRANK by Ellen Hopkins. Thanks to the inside look the book gave me, the next time someone offers me some, I’m totally sniffin’ that shit.”
  • Innocent teen boy: “I’ll catch up with you two later. I’m gonna go, um, investigate this hip new ‘jerking off’ stuff I read about — see what all the hype is.”

*Scratches head again.*

I find the whole idea of book banning presumptuous and despicable, but that and all jokes aside, there is a real danger here, and it’s not from the books.

The most dangerous, harmful part of this whole issue is the messages the act of censorship sends kids about the right ways to live and stand up for the things we believe in.

Messages like:

  1. It’s okay to judge things on appearances / without all the facts.
  2. If you disagree with someone, you can get a bunch of people on your side to yell real loud, make threats, and force them to shut up.
  3. It’s best to run away from stuff that you don’t understand and ignore or cover up things that make you uncomfortable.
  4. When you have a question, fear, or curiosity about a potentially scary or heavy issue like sex, drugs, violence, God, or sexuality, you should probably just experiment for yourself and/or ask a total stranger about it. By the way, if you’ve already started experimenting, we’d rather not know about it.
  5. You have the right and/or moral obligation to make decisions for other people and their families based on your own values, assumptions, and beliefs. Everyone should think and behave like you, and if they don’t, well, see #2.

Okay, we’re just talking about books here, right? Wrong. Censoring books is censoring ideas, values, art, diversity, stories, people, freedom. It’s saying that there’s a right way and a wrong way, and that one person or group has figured out the right way while the rest of us must either conform or die. It’s paving the way for the truly heinous, deadly ideas.

Ideas like:

  1. It’s okay to exterminate an entire race/culture/ethnic group/religious group/”undesirable” in favor of a Master Race.
  2. It’s okay to bully kids in your class until they commit suicide.
  3. It’s okay to enslave and brutally torture people who are a different color than you.
  4. It’s okay to crash airplanes into buildings.

If grownups really want to protect children from the dangers of the world to which they’ll undoubtedly be exposed (and most likely already have been exposed, long before adults hear about it in a book), what’s wrong with starting a conversation? Why not make it a point to learn about the issue and have a discussion (not lecture) with your kids? If the direct approach doesn’t work for you, why not read the book for yourself and encourage your child to do the same, then talk about your values (and what you hope your teens will learn) through the perspective of the characters’ choices and attitudes?

And for the love of chocolate covered espresso beans, if you still don’t want to even mention words like sex, drugs, and suicide to your own kids, at least have the decency to let other parents make their own decisions about how they want to approach or avoid the subjects!

Whether it’s a young adult novel or the Qu’ran, books themselves should not be feared. People who think they can infringe on the freedoms of others should be feared. People who think they have the right or obligation to censor, destroy, and control ideas should be feared.

(People who don’t like 80s movies featuring the governor of California should also be feared, but we can cover that in a future discussion.)

On that note, go out and read a banned book. And if you hate books and you don’t want to expose yourself to the so-called dangers that lurk within their pages, there’s a free and simple solution that I’ll offer you now, for a limited time only, while supplies last…

Don’t read them.

38 thoughts on “What Censorship Teaches Kids

  1. So true. It breaks my heart to read about censorship like this. I really don’t understand it…what people are thinking. Look at the world we live in. Is pulling a book off the shelf going to shelter your child to the world out there? Even if it would why do we want them sheltered? Don’t we want them armed with knowledge? But, as you said, that isn’t even the biggest issue, IMO. People have the right to do as the want by their children, it’s when they infinge on other peoples rights. Take away books and knowledge away from my child because of their fears where it all becomes way too much.

    Great blog, Sarah. And about a title?? Really?

    • That’s what gets me, too — that people think they can make a blanket decision for an entire school or community based on their own values and perceptions. The thing with Sarah Dessen’s book really pissed me off b/c it was done under the guise/intention of providing info to help parents make decisions about the books their kids should read, but all it did was make it so the parents didn’t *have* to read the book. They could just look at the highly subjective summary and ratings and make a decision. And the title-banning thing is just ridiculously silly and simple-minded. What if the book was about running a day care center? They don’t know, because they didn’t bother reading it. Grrr.

      Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts, Kelley!

  2. *applauds*

    Great post, Sarah. This is so true. It breaks my heart to see misinformed people banning wonderful books. You cannot judge a novel based on a few pages in isolation — a novel is never just a few curse words, masturbation jokes, whatever. It’s a whole story. And Absolutely True Diary is a beautiful one at that.

  3. Great post. I’ve had Twenty Boy Summer on my TBR list for a while, but now that I know what it is ~really~ about, I’ll have to move it up!! ;o)

    Seriously, though, this is a scary topic. As a parent, it is my responsibility to decide what is appropriate for my child to read. No one else has the right to do so for me.

    And I hate when people ban/try to ban something they have never read. Kinda makes me wanna go all Commando on them. (Yeah. I went there.)


    • Like I said… bow chica wow wow… 😉

      And the point about the parents taking responsibility to decide what’s appropriate for their own kids reminds me of something I said when the Ellen Hopkins thing first happened, and it’s that the kids who most benefit from challenging, raw, honest books like Ellen’s are the ones who don’t have concerned parents looking out for them. There are kids who probably wouldn’t be alive today if they didn’t read some of Ellen’s books and the thought that other kids who need them won’t get to read them is just appalling and sad.

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. This is a really great post and I think your fifth bullet in what it teaches kids is so true. Cutting off ideas just tells kids that it is okay to force morals on other people because that is what they should believe in. Hmm… let’s think about other times that has happened. Reading opens up the world and let’s you learn about people and places and ideas you otherwise never encounter. And like you said, if you would rather the world doesn’t open up, then don’t read.

  5. Fabulous post, Sarah. The Sherman Alexie thing was truly awful considering educators in the district went to bat for the book, and yet the school board (7-0 I might add) voted to remove it. I would bet none of them had read the book. How could anyone possibly say it has “no value” or “is offensive.” No value to ANYONE? OFFENSIVE to whom? The answer to the last question is “one elementary school parent.”

    Sad, sad, sad that we haven’t come farther. We believe we have, then this comes up. Again!

    • Sometimes I still can’t believe it’s 2010. How anyone could deem that book of “no value” is beyond me. And you’re absolutely right — I bet a lot of the banners didn’t bother reading it.

  6. I agree with Ellen–>it just keeps rearing its ugly head over and over again. You think we’ve come further until… it happens again. And again. It all comes down to fear. One parent is afraid, and so encourages more parents to share that fear until a hasty board meeting just makes the whole mess go away.

    When you’re afraid of things, get rid of them. That’s the basis for so many terrible things in our world.


  7. Book banning, and other forms of censorship, absolutely befuddle me. I mean, I understand if a school library servicing elementary along with older kids needs to restrict book checkout to the suggested age groups for a book (it’s not as though a first grader needs to run around her classroom talking about this great book she just read, but what exactly is meth, or what does masturbation mean, or …?), at least without prior parent approval. This is not that different to me than slapping a PG-13 on a movie. But beyond that …

    What exactly do these parents thing they are protecting? Because it’s not their children, who will grow up confused and alone, with nowhere to turn when they have questions about things that embarrass them or pressures they face. These children will be less likely to see the consequences of taking just one little hit, or separating themselves from others because of skin color, or being silent when they see abuse to their friends, or thinking it’s okay for their friends to bully other kids.

    Children are smart. And curious. If you try to keep them away from something, they’ll find another way to get it. And that other way … that’s what really scares me, not a flipping book.

  8. Amen, sister! You nailed it on this one. And for the record to all those idiot book banners out there, Jay and I are now reading Ellen Hopkins because you posted about the fiasco in Texas. Before that we had not heard of her and now we’re buying her books. Take that, haters!

  9. I sold an even dozen copies of Sarah’s book to the girls, moms and grandmothers that I work with. Most of them were bought as gifts for daughters, nieces, granddaughters, etc. and I know for a fact that everyone that bought a copy read it first, and not one of them had any issues whatsoever about making a gift of it.

    Censoring because the title sounds promiscuous to someone???? I’ll admit the title raised a few eyebrows, mine included, but isn’t a good title supposed to attract attention?

    My suggestion, Sarah, is to thank the small-minded few for the free advertising. Because as soon as young people hear about it they’ll buy the book to find out for themselves.

    Keep up the terrific work!


    • LOL “mine included” because you thought Twenty Boy Summer was my teen memoir…

      I appreciate your comments, though. And your sales. And I’m glad the women at work read it first — that’s the problem, too. So many people want to ban or challenge books without even reading them first. Baffling.

  10. Wow, why would anyone want to ban Twenty Boy Summer, just because the title suggests something that the book isn’t even about? That’s a really stupid reason to ban a book; Twenty Boy Summer was a really good book because it allowed me to look into the life of a teenager who lost someone they loved forever. It was beautifully written and the emotion in it was so real; I feel bad for anyone who will not be allowed to read it.

  11. I’m grappling with all this censorship and jump-on-the-bozo bandwagon lately, as I have to write an article for our local paper here.
    But here’s my question/issue/thing I’d like others to help me with: I live in a country (Colombia) in which fewer than two books are read/year in the urban areas and fewer than one/year in my own city.
    When I bring up censorship, I get blank looks because, well, they’re not reading. They’re not getting pissed because they’re not getting exposed to ANYTHING at all … so part of me is elated seeing these discussions and conversations about something that SHOULD. NOT. HAPPEN. I get that. But part of me gets all giddy simply because, please understand, people are reading. NOT THE CENSORS, I don’t think, but kids, teachers, parents, too. People are reading. People are defending the written word and ideas and the grueling, bleak, sometimes brutal worlds authors give us.
    Here, though, I just get shrugs because it’s THEORETICAL. Censorship and book challenges, as far as I know, don’t happen. Because for it to happen, you’ve got to have readers.
    TOTALLY OFF TOPIC, I KNOW … but I’m feeling a little sad this conversation doesn’t take place down here and that ideas that kids and parents and teachers need to read about don’t come here, either.

    • Good point, Heidi. Hopefully you and other like-minded folks in your area can keep encouraging kids to read. We hear that sentiment here sometimes, too – “kids aren’t reading!” But here, it’s not true. It just amazes me that censors would want to do anything to further prevent that reading.

  12. Well here in the Suburb of West Seneca..outside Buffalo, NY Twenty boy Summer was on the High School Summer reading list!!

  13. I agree 100%. Last year a local school board banned the novel, The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, because one parent didn’t approve of it. There was so much publicity about the banning that everyone wanted to read it. What seemed almost instantly every bookstore in the area was sold out and almost everybody who read it didn’t see what the big deal was. Its somewhat funny that they banned the book so nobody could read it, but all they did was make it the most popular book in the area.

    • That seems to happen a lot of the time because we’re always going to be drawn to something that we’re told we can’t have! The sad thing is that the kids who can’t afford to buy the book outside of a school or library, or who would otherwise not be inspired to read it without happening upon it at the library, won’t get that chance. And those are usually the kids who need to read those really tough, honest books the most!

  14. Pingback: Book Banning again « YA Lit- The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

  15. I absolutely agree with everything that you have said, and I am an English teacher!!! I have so often fought principals and supervisors over the issue of what kids are reading, but none of them seem to get that the KIDS ARE READING! I have at least 3 copies of every single one of Ellen Hopkins’ books in my classroom library. The kids love her books, and I am not going to deny them a good read, because one parent wishes to protect his/her child. If parents have a value system that they wish to enforce, they should enforce it on their own child. Their value system is not applicable to all the other children in the classroom or even school. I have a plethora of so-called “banned books” on my shelf, because these books actually deal with the real issues that teenagers are facing today. If having these books in my classroom helps even one student cope with a situation, then it has all been worth it.

    • Thanks, Ann. I really appreciate your perspective as a teacher, and I’m glad to hear that you’re fighting the good fight for the kids who want (and need) to read those books!

  16. Well said, Sarah! I came across a list of most commonly banned books in a conservative magazine in my folks’ house. The tone of the article was agreement that these books were “of concern to parents everywhere.” Yep, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Tom Sawyer were still on the list, Harry Potter was a relatively recent addition since it was considered anti-Christian.

    Here’s a concept: Parent, know what your kids are reading and get engaged in the conversation.

    I copied the list out of the magazine and will ensure that as my girls get older that those books are on their reading lists.

    • That novel concept you mention is so key! And I’m glad you’re planning to put it into action when the girls are ready for those banned books. The anti-Christian thing with Harry Potter really gets me, because if friendship and love and loyalty aren’t “Christian values,” than what is? Oh, right, burning the Qu’ran and making sure everyone is the same. Doh!

  17. When I was a teen, I WAS very (very!) sheltered. Not because my parents (or other people) were censoring things but just because I lived in a small, rural town, and was surrounded by friends who were also very sheltered.

    But here’s the thing: if I read a book and I was offended or it was too much for me to handle I PUT THE BOOK DOWN. Why do we assume that teens can’t handle this responsibility? They are old enough to decide what to read and what not to read. Unless librarians start offering porn to teens then they should be given this choice!

    Sidenote: I also think teens today live in such a different world then teens did even 10 years ago, so the “super sheltered teen” breed that I was a part of is slowly dying out.

    • Tiff, I grew up very, very much like you. Small town, very sheltered, with very sheltered friends. We mostly read fairly tame books, like Lurlene McDaniel and R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, but I also read very grownup stuff, like Stephen King, for instance. While my mom was never thrilled with the F bomb (in books, movies, or otherwise), my parents never restricted my access to books. They never even asked about the language in them, because they were just thrilled I was reading. I knew what I could handle and what I couldn’t, and I sure as hell didn’t run out and hack people up, or use drugs, or run away from home just because the kids I was reading about did that kind of stuff. Parents, raise your kids well and trust them. They may surprise you.

  18. Pingback: On Book Banning Zealots & Ostriches « Sarah Ockler, Author

  19. Pingback: Speak Loudly | Escape Through the Pages

Comments are closed.