by Trisha Tucker
ohio capital magazine
Banned Books Week, the annual event where teachers and librarians from across America are here again with a combination of pain and contempt. This year’s event runs from September 18 to 24 with the theme “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divide Us.”
It comes amid regular high-profile efforts to remove allegedly controversial or inappropriate reading material from libraries and schools. Today, a small group of parents who have traditionally spearheaded such efforts has joined with politicians to create legislation that would ban or criminalize the provision of controversial books to children.
I teach a Forbidden Books class at USC, so it’s easy for me to notice the headlines on this topic, but it’s not just cognitive biases. The American Library Association reports that in 2021, it tracked 729 challenges for library, school, and university materials, targeting a total of 1,597 books. This is the highest number of attempts to ban a book since tracking began more than 20 years ago. This year is on track to surpass the 2021 record, with 681 challenges as of August 31, 2022.
Bans are increasingly targeting books written by or featuring LGBTQ and people of color. But perennial classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Grapes of Wrath” are also being challenged by parents who worry about their racist language and black marginalization of roles.
“Banning books doesn’t quite meet the criteria for left and right politics,” cautions Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen.
What binds these challenges together is a professed desire to protect young readers from dangerous content. But attempts to ban books are often motivated by misunderstandings about how children consume and process literature.
How children read
Many adults believe that exposure to specific literary content will always have specific effects.
Christian author and editor David Kopp acknowledged this when he spoke about the controversy surrounding the 1989 children’s book Heather Has Two Moms.
“[T]For many Christians who oppose the book, the deeper dilemma is often not a theological one but an emotional one. It has to do with our fears,” he wrote on the faith-focused website BeliefNet in 2001. “We fear that our children will be indoctrinated in some way. We worry that they will start to think homosexuality is normal and then…the part we didn’t say…become one. “
Kopp called the fear “ridiculous.” He insists that “a book, well-intentioned or otherwise, is unlikely to change the sexuality of our children.”
Many scholars would agree. Research shows that children’s reading experiences are complex and unpredictable. As scholar Christine Jenkins explains in an essay on censorship and young readers, “Readers respond to and are influenced by texts in ways specific to each reader in the context of a particular time and place. “
In short, children co-create their own reading experience. Their interpretations of books depend on their personal and cultural history, and these interpretations may change over time or as readers encounter the same stories in different contexts.
So neither the so-called health effects or the so-called dangerous effects of reading for children can be taken for granted. Children are not just empty containers waiting to be filled with textual information and images, although adults tend to paint young readers as unhelpful to the stories they consume.
Wall Street Journal contributor Meghan Cox Gurdon believes parents must always be wary of books that “bulldozers” [and] Make your child’s life miserable. Earlier this year, an Ohio school board vice president accused Jason Sapp, author of “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn,” for “pushing LGBTQ thinking on our most vulnerable students.”
who is the child
This perception reflects the common stories American society tells about the nature of children and childhood. These stories are the focus of an undergraduate course I teach called “Wild Boys and Girls,” in which we pass stories such as “Lord of the Flies,” “When They Saw Us,” and “The Virgin Suicides.”
On the first day, I asked the students to brainstorm on common characteristics of children. They often chose words such as “innocent”, “pure” and “naive” – although nannies and students with younger siblings were more likely to admit that children could also be “naughty” and “weird”.
My students are often surprised to learn that the Western concept of children as innocents in need of protection is a relatively new idea, stemming from the economic and social changes of the 17th century.
The idea that humans were born as “whiteboards” or whiteboards, put forward by the English philosopher John Locke in the late 17th century, had immeasurable influence. Children without innate traits must be carefully shaped. Thus, according to scholar Alyson Miller, “childhood becomes a time of high governance and control”.
Some groups hold different views, such as 18th and 19th century evangelical Christians, who believe that children are born full of original sin. But narratives of children born pure and helpless have gradually shaped diverse fields such as biology and political theory.
Perhaps no discipline has been so strongly influenced as the two intertwined fields of literature and education.
The value of “unsafe” books
Banning books has gained traction in a culture that sees itself as erecting a barrier between the purity of children and the corruption of the world.
But such efforts can have unintended consequences, scholars like Kerry H. Robinson argue. In her 2013 book on sex and censorship, she wrote: “The regulation of children’s access to vital knowledge … undermines their development as capable, informed, critically minded and ethical young citizens .”
Debates about challenging books are different if participants understand young readers as active participants in the discovery and creation of knowledge.
Jason Reynolds, National Youth Literary Ambassador for the Library of Congress and author of the oft-targeted “All American Boys,” which depicts a racially charged police beating, offers a different — and, I Think, a healthier way to envision a child’s relationship with reading.
“There’s no better place for young people to engage and think about ideas that may or may not be theirs than a book,” he told CNN in a June 2022 in-depth feature on banned books in the United States. “These stories are designed to be playgrounds for ideas, for debate and discourse. Books don’t brainwash. They represent ideas.”
For Reynolds and other authors, librarians, readers, parents and educators marking Banned Books Week 2022, adults have a right to disagree with these ideas. But instead of worrying about the uncomfortable “talking young people bring home,” adults can actively encourage them.
“If adults are doing their jobs,” Reynolds said, the discomfort that usually accompanies growing up “doesn’t have to feel like danger.”
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original text.
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