Ask writers how they feel about challenges to books and the freedom to read, and you will discover that this is something they think about a lot, and in most cases, it’s something they have terrifically strong feelings about.
For Banned Books Week, I asked eight authors to talk about the importance of addressing difficult issues in books for young people, what they’d say to people who want to ban books, and why the freedom to read is so important.
What would you say to parents who want to see materials removed from school reading lists or library shelves?
Carrie Mesrobian, author of Sex & Violence, Cut Both Ways — I would tell parents that before they jump to expending their energy on the removal of material that they ought to make sure that the students in their district are all at 100% literacy levels and that they all have access to books at home and in their local libraries and that they read for pleasure. Once that's accomplished, they can maybe start carping about content. MAYBE. Because the real outrage isn't in book content; it's in the fact that most kids don't develop into life-long readers. That is our fault as a society, as parents, as educators, as community members.
Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice and What We Saw — Hiding content you are afraid of or find questionable, will not keep your young reader from seeking it out. It will only ensure that when they do find it, they will hide it from you. You will miss out on the conversation you could have had with him or her about what your views on the subject are, and why. You will miss out on the chance that reading gives us to grow closer. Instead, you'll find yourself further apart than ever from your son or daughter.
Isabel Quintero, author of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces — I would encourage parents to actually read the material and then read it with their student/child and have a dialogue about it. Discussions about books that both parties have read area great way to bond with your child; it invites critical thinking and questioning, and both parents and children learn from each other. Often, what I saw as an elementary school library tech, was that when parents didn't want their students to read something (like Goosebumps or The Higher Power of Lucky or (gasp!) Harry Potter) I found they had never read the books. They were often going off of what they had heard from another parent who hadn't read the book. Also, if you don't want your kid to read something because you feel that they are not ready for it, realize that every child is different and that you are not only limiting learning experiences for your child but for other children as well, and that is unjust.
Anthony Breznican, author of Brutal Youth — I'm not sympathetic to these people at all. No one in America forces a kid to read anything; so if you don't trust your school or your teacher and would prefer to police what your child reads, you have that choice. But what these grandstanding parents who challenge books are really saying is: "I don't think YOUR children should read this book either." That takes extreme arrogance and entitlement, and they shouldn't have the right to infantilize an entire student body simply because they don't want their kids to know about sex, gay people, or that the world is sometimes tragic and unfair.
Bill Konigsberg, author of The Porcupine of Truth, Openly Straight — First, I would say that I get it. I'm not a parent of a child, but I'm a parent of two Labradoodles. They aren't quite the same, I know. But I do know that when I go to the dog park, when I see things that I fear might hurt my furry child, I want them gone. Wanting to remove challenging books from reading lists or library shelves comes from, I think, a place of caring. But the dog park analogy ends there. A nasty, untrained dog might hurt my fluffy girl, but ideas will not maim your child. What can hurt a child, however, is preventing them from encountering difficult or complex issues in the safe form of a book. We authors have done you a favor! You can read a book with your teen and talk to them about it! You can share your own views and hear theirs, and discuss! How safe is that? What an opportunity to bond with your child! You're welcome.
With your background as an educator as well as a writer, what are some of the issues related to censorship and the freedom to read that you’ve seen on the job?
E. Katherine Kottaras, author of How To Be Brave — It was years ago in Illinois when I was a teacher - a mom challenged Bless Me, Ultima (which was board approved).
At first she said it was because of the swearing, but after an hour-long conversation, she finally admitted that she didn't understand why her child should have to read books with Spanish included. I was fresh out of college, a first-year, untenured teacher, and in my undergrad teacher preparation, we had discussed teachers who had faced legal challenges for remaining committed to books that had been questioned. I felt quite vulnerable - I wasn’t sure how far the parent would push to have Bless Me, Ultima removed, or how that would reflect on my evaluations/position.
Why do you think it's important to address difficult issues in books for young readers?
Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice and What We Saw — So many adults I know want to be able to broach difficult subjects with their young readers and are stymied by how to bring it up. Books are the perfect jumping off point—the perfect conversation starter. You want to know what your son or daughter thinks about a topic you're afraid to bring up? Authors all over the place have started the conversation for you! You don't even have to hand the book to your teenager. Just leave it out on the coffee table. I promise it'll disappear. Then wait a week and ask, "So. What'd you think of that book?"
Anthony Breznican, author of Brutal Youth — Trusting a kid to read something that is on the high end of their maturity level is a great act of trust. Most kids rise to the responsibility and are grateful to be treated like adults. We are gifting them secrets with these rabble-rousing books, lessons learned the hard way that are presented in safe story form that can be closed, walked away from, and considered for another time—when those situations may present themselves in real life. Parents who want to ban books are saying: "No, your child isn't ready. None of these kids is ready." And in some case, "No one should ever be ready." And that's why it's important to stand firm against pompous naysayers.
Isabel Quintero, author of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces — People often have this misguided notion that children are innocent and that reading about difficult issues would ruin that innocence. Children are not innocent beings. We want children to be protected from every harsh reality, and in that, we often forget that many children in this country live in a harsh reality. Children are homeless, they're migrant workers, they're abused, they're orphans, they have parents who are: addicts, prostitutes, dealers, gang members, racists, murderers, and so on. It is unrealistic that because we believe that children should not be exposed to "difficult" situations, they're not. When we do that, place these unrealistic expectations of innocence, and have them only read Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Ramona (both terrific series and favorites of mine) we make the lives of some many kids invisible. Writing that addresses homelessness, for example, like Eve Bunting does in Fly Away Home, or about what it often means to be a poor Mexican kid like Juan Felipe Herrera does in crashboomlove, tells kids who often just read about "perfect" families, who have enough money to do stuff like art, sports, and vacation, that their experiences are valid too; that they too are worthy enough to talk about.
What do you say when people ask you if a book is appropriate for a reader?
Elana K. Arnold, author of Infandous, The Question of Miracles — I always respond when parents write to ask about the content in my books. Sometimes parents will want a list of content, and I don't do that. I tell parents that it's not up to me to decide if a book is appropriate. I don't think it's up to anyone but the reader, and I think parents would learn more about their kids by discussing content in the book than by me telling them various things that happen in the book. Every reader comes to a book from a different place. When I was growing up, things were happening to me and around me that no parent would have found appropriate—but they were happening, just the same.
Michelle Falkoff, author of Playlist for the Dead — When people ask me whether my book is appropriate for a particular reader, I try to be really sensitive about who's asking and who the prospective reader might be. My book deals with sensitive topics (suicide and bullying, among other things), and it takes a mature reader to be able to process those things without them being so disturbing as to make the book not enjoyable overall.
About once a year, someone will write an article about how YA is too dark or not appropriate for teens. What is this about, and why does it keep happening?
Carrie Mesrobian, author of Sex & Violence, Cut Both Ways — Those "YA is Terrible" articles are clickbait. They allow people who like to get all panicky about the state of today's youth lose their minds in comment sections. My suspicion is that these people who are losing their minds are not people who are acquainted with lots of teenagers. They are making terrible assumptions about teenagers today while casting a rosy nostalgic view on their own adolescence. Teenagers are not a monolith and neither is fiction about them. It's like saying "Adult books today! Such trash!" It belies any sort of awareness of what's available to read.
Why is the freedom to read so important?
Isabel Quintero, author of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces — One of the things I ask my students when they tell me they hate reading, is to think about what their life would be like if they were illiterate or didn't have access to literacy. What does that look like? Well, we'd have to trust those who could read, those in power, to share information with us and have them, also, interpret that information for us (think old school Catholicism, where mass was performed in Latin). This poses a lot of problems, namely, how reliable is that information and how does that influence my life? If reading was, in fact, not a big deal, not a weapon in the fight against oppression and inequity, there wouldn't be places like Arizona, banning books about Mexican Americans, or Texas rewriting history; or parents asking that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian be pulled. The freedom to read is one of the most important freedoms we have because reading makes us better thinkers, and what's more frightening to power and oppression than a thinking citizenry?
Carrie Mesrobian, author of Sex & Violence, and Cut Both Ways — There are places in the world that do not have libraries at all. Or they don't have libraries that circulate books. You can read them in the library but not take them home. We have a tradition of free public schools and free public libraries in the United States because we believe in the notion that an educated populace is a cornerstone of democracy. We fall short of that notion, to be sure, but I think the ideal is there. And when people interfere in others' choice of reading material, it seems as if they don't believe in that ideal. And it seems like they assume that everyone everywhere has the time, the choice, the ability and the energy to read whatever they want. This is not the case. Books cannot hurt you, because they help you invest in your own intelligence. Divesting a person of their own intelligence? That's what hurts.
Bill Konigsberg, author of The Porcupine of Truth,and Openly Straight — I think allowing teens to read material that we haven't cherry-picked to keep them "safe" is absolutely essential. When we give teens the opportunity to go into difficult-but-real places and circumstances within the pages of a book, it affords them the opportunity to think for themselves about how they'd handle a situation, and it stimulates in them the type of critical thinking skills needed to survive in a world that isn't always cherry picked by parents. The world is filled with situations that parents might like to ban, but the truth is that we need adults who, as teenagers, learned to think for themselves about these challenging issues and moments.
Michelle Falkoff, author of Playlist for the Dead—First, I don't think there's a better way for kids to develop their intellect, imagination, and capacity for empathy than through books, and Scientific American agrees.
We live in a world where kids have increased access to visual images of horrible violence and other really disturbing imagery through television, movies, and video games (all of which have their benefits too, but still), and while visual media can provide some amount of context, they're not nearly as good as literature at getting deep into character perspective and giving access to thought process.
Second, I'm finding myself constantly disheartened by the state of public education in this country, particularly in communities that are either impoverished or not committed to providing quality public education or both. Books are a way for kids to expand their minds, no matter what their financial status might be, thanks to the miracle of libraries.
Third, I'm also a big fan of letting kids read whatever they want, with no restrictions. I understand that doesn't work for everyone, and I respect parents who want to be involved and set boundaries for their kids, especially since they obviously have a better sense of what their kids can handle than I can. But I never stop being grateful for the fact that my mother let me read with reckless abandon when I was a kid, even when facing the disapproval of people who couldn't believe how inappropriate my reading might have been for someone my age. That broad-based, voracious appetite I had back then engendered a lifelong love of reading that might have gone undeveloped had I been limited to only reading books recommended for kids my age.
Anthony Breznican, author of Brutal Youth — Freedom to read is important because in order to have functioning adults, kids need to start seeking out and discovering their own ideas. The more we try to restrict or control that, the more we hold them back. Kids need to run; their minds do, too.