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.