It’s Banned Books Week and organizations from the American Booksellers Association to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (who knew?) are commemorating our right to read without censorship. When we think of banned books, we often think of books forbidden by the government ala the plot of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but that isn’t really how books are banned in America today. Our books tend to be banned one school district or library at a time. And it’s often aimed at books for children and teens. The Washington Post examined this phenomenon, noting that many of the most challenged books of the past year were graphic novels.
Children, more than anyone, need unfettered access to literature. I am supremely grateful to all the subversive writers of my youth: Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Lois Duncan, S.E. Hinton, and dozens more answered questions I didn’t know how to ask. And I am grateful to my parents, who never censored my reading or told me I was too young for a book.
Books open a child’s mind to the possibilities of the wider world. The books I read as a child and as a teenager taught me more about the world than anything I ever learned in school. Those books helped me imagine life outside of Mississippi and made me less afraid to move away when I got older. Those books gave me insight and courage.
The books being banned or challenged now will do the same for today’s children. I’m talking about books like Neal Shusterman’s Unwind (recommended to me by an extremely enthusiastic middle schooler) or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. These books contain profanity, racial issues, sexual situations, violence, LGBTQ characters, and plenty of other things that adults might find objectionable in books for young people. But these “objectionable” things are a huge part of why these books are so appealing. Parents cannot protect their sons and daughters from real issues, no matter how hard they try. This is certainly true in the age of social media and the internet, but it was true when I was child and my only portals for exploration were the local library and the television screen.
So I say let children read the books that make adults uncomfortable. Don’t forbid them from reading something just because it doesn’t reinforce your values. Reading is the best way for children to learn that the world is a complicated, messy place. It’s the best way for them to hone their own sense of self and to test their moral compass. In the words of John Green, whose Looking for Alaska has been in the crosshairs of would-be censors:
“If you have a world view that can be undone with a novel, let me submit that the problem is not with the novel.”
In no particular order, here are a few controversial books I loved when I was young. They aren’t all great literature, but I learned something from every single one.
- Blubber, Deenie, Forever, and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
- I Am the Cheese and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
- The Pigman and My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel (actually everything by Zindel)
- The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton
- The Best Little Girl in the World by Steven Levenkron
- I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan
- Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr
- Anna to the Infinite Power by Mildred Ames
- A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich by Alice Childress
- Are You in the House Alone? by Richard Peck
- The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson
- Heads You Win, Tails I Lose by Isabelle Holland
- I’m Nobody! Who Are You? by Mary Anderson
- House of Stairs by William Sleator
- Carrie and Pet Sematary by Stephen King