Maybe the book is unfamiliar (whatever happened to the classics?), or maybe they heard something about it from a talk show host (why fill kids' heads with dark thoughts?), or maybe their minister (or priest, or rabbi, or imam) bemoans the state of teen culture (why expose them to bad role models?). But there are also many well-intentioned parents who have been told that good parenting means constant vigilance to "protect" kids. The end result is a never-ending assault on books in school that contain anything that someone finds controversial, provocative, unpleasant, or offensive.
Among the spate of books challenged on reading lists this past summer were Little Brother by Cory Doctorow in Pensacola, FL. (removed from a high school summer reading assignment because of "mature themes," "violent scenes," "a non-graphic scene of teen intercourse," and "moderate language and drug references"); John Green's novel, Paper Towns, also in Florida (sexual references); The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily danforth in Delaware (lesbian and gay characters, profanity), and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood in Pennsylvania ("adult nature," "grossly inappropriate conduct"). As evidenced by the frequent requests for assistance directed to our Kids' Right to Read Project, the list of novels for children and young adults coming under attack – everything from The Color Purple to Bless Me, Ultima to Your Health Today – is endless.
You'd think parents would want their kids to read books like these, as opposed to playing video games, watching TV, or hanging out on social media sites. Probably most parents agree, at least theoretically, but at the same time they are bombarded with the message that they're supposed to shield their kids from anything that might give them "bad" ideas, scare or upset them, or encourage them to question conventional thinking or authority figures. So they hover and worry, ever alert to reports about "dangerous" books.
Turns out, there's a cottage industry that fuels this anxiety. The best known example is Common Sense Media, which rates books for sex, violence, language (profanity, racial and sexual references), drinking, drugs and smoking, and consumerism on a scale of 1 – 5 (as well as purporting to rate educational value, positive messages, and positive role models). The focus on discrete elements of a work of fiction, rather than the whole, yields some peculiar results. For example, Kenneth Grahame's children's classic, Wind in the Willows, has enchanted generations of children and adults since its first publication in 1908, but CSM flags its "violence & scariness" ("There's a fight that pits Toad against the ferrets and weasels. A ferret shoots at Toad, Rat puts pistols in his belt, and Otter cuffs a rabbit.") Another children's classic, Curious George, gets 3 marks for violence and scariness, along with the warning that "some kids may be a little troubled by George's sad expression when he's whisked away from home." Isn't that the point?
The same approach is taken with books for teens. Sherman Alexie's National Book Award-winning novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is characterized as a "powerful look at the life of Native Americans on reservation, and the struggles one teen faces," but attention is focused equally on its "swearing, racism, homophobia, references to masturbation, erections — and alcoholism." Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, "a rich but intense book," mysteriously merits only a 3 for educational value.
The limitations of this approach become clear by comparing reviews by professional educators and editors. Booklist described Eidi: The Children of Crow Cove, Book 2, by Bodil Bredsdorff, as an "unassuming yet compelling story … notable for the simplicity and power of the storytelling, the clarity of description and characterization, and the humanity of the ideas at the novel's heart." CSM, however, thinks "there is not much specific educational value" other than "learning about spinning wool, knitting, life in the country, and items at a marketplace." According to CSM, Ellen Hopkins's novel Glass has limited educational value and no positive messages. In contrast, VOYA, the library journal for young adult literature, calls it a "compelling and devastating story…[a] highly-recommended cautionary tale," by an author whose own daughter has battled addiction.
Leading educational and free speech groups agree: ratings impose a negative and value-laden lens on literature but say little or nothing about a book's literary worth or emotional impact. The focus on "problematic" content obscures the mind-expanding and life-altering potential of books, and the fact that they allow us to explore the world vicariously through characters that may be next door, or from faraway times and places. Or that they stimulate insight, empathy, and imagination. Or that they offer a safe way to observe the consequences of bad choices without making them. Or that they enrich, educate, and entertain. All this is lost when the focus is on the number of sexual allusions, depictions of violence, or times the word "fuck" appears. In short, ratings focus on a few trees, but ignore the forest.
Worse, ratings have crept into the educational system, spurred by anxious parents and school officials eager to avoid controversy. In one Pennsylvania school, teachers were instructed to indicate whether books in classroom libraries contain "violence or sexual content" or racial, ethnic, or religious material that might be considered "insensitive" or "offensive." A proposal in Virginia would require parents to be notified about any "sensitive" material. A school board in Missouri removed Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, in response to a complaint that scoured the book for vulgar language, violence, and sexual content. Could literary classics by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning authors like William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Tony Kushner and John Updike be next on the chopping block? You bet, if we accept the idea that children should be protected from learning about life or fed only sanitized glimpses.
Eventually children grow up and confront reality in all its grime and glory. Reading prepares them for life before they encounter it. Children who grow up without the freedom to explore the world that literature offers are truly impoverished.
It just so happens that Banned Books Week, the annual celebration of the freedom to read, starts on Sept. 21. Mark the occasion by reading a banned book. You might be pleasantly surprised.
-Joan E Bertin