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You've got to read what you want to read

Demonstrate your trust in knowledge--and its application--during Banned Books Week



It’s at hand again: one of my favorite non-holiday, yet holiday-like celebrations of the year.

Banned Books Week—described by organizers as “the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read”—is set for Sept. 22 through 28 in 2013.

This year’s efforts come just days after a controversy in Ohio, where author Toni Morrison criticized the president of the Ohio School Board for reportedly suggesting that a reference to one of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner’s books, The Bluest Eye, should be cut from Common Core standards because of the book’s “pornographic” nature.

The debate over students’ and the public’s rights to read what they want is a complex one, for sure, and I spent no small amount of time trying to formulate the right words to express why reading freedom is such an important issue.

As much as I’m in love with the sound and shape of my own writing, I found what I was looking for in the words of someone else. At the official Banned Books website via ala.org, Moyers & Company host Bill Moyers is quoted as saying, “Censorship is the enemy of truth, even more than a lie. A lie can be exposed; censorship can prevent us from knowing the difference.”

Yes, George Orwell had it right in 1984 (even though I think Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World was generally more on target when it comes to how a functional dystopia would run). If you’ll recall, Orwell’s book, which gave us the surveillance-catchall term Big Brother, also presented an excellent way to restrict someone’s freedom: restrict his or her vocabulary, allowing for increasingly inadequate means of expressing dissatisfaction with something. There’s no “bad” in this nightmare vision of the future; there’s only “ungood.” Try getting into an argument over censorship without using any English words with a negative connotation.

As a journalist, I believe that information is a good thing. The information itself might not be savory, or safe, but what we do with it—no matter what it is—can shape this world into a better place. We can’t shine lights into the dark corners where ugly secrets hide if we refuse to acknowledge that the dark corners exist.

So: The Bluest Eye. This isn’t Playboy gussied up into novel form and surreptitiously slid to young readers in public schools. The book deals with rape and incest which—horribly, horribly—do exist in our world. Sticking our fingers into our collective ears and squishing our eyes shut against such monstrous acts won’t make them go away. In fact, doing so will only encourage them to flourish, as nobody will be listening or looking anymore.

Are there appropriate age limits for introducing such harsh realities? Sure. But give professional, talented, caring teachers and the often underestimated young people they teach some credit.

I believe we, as a society, do far too much hoping that our children won’t know anything at all about sex—good or bad—and have gone so far as to be afraid of it as a subject of any discussion, which can lead to all sorts of problems. But that’s a mostly different argument. Mostly. It relates to my main point like this: Let students get information from writers who present truths in ways their parents and teachers can’t. Then talk to them about those truths. Find out what they think. Ask them how what they read makes them feel, what they would do in certain characters’ situations, how they think certain actions or events made the world a better or worse place, how they think a situation might have turned out differently if different choices had been made.

Here’s a hint: It helps if you take an active role in leading discussions that encourage applying what students read to their own lives, whether they aim to emulate a hero or express disgust at a villain’s actions. Trusting that the youth in your life will take in the information and use it wisely isn’t easy, but doing so will encourage them to think critically and—hopefully—know that they can look for guidance and advice from adults who respect them enough to make their own decisions and reading selections.

Executive Editor Ryan Miller is guilty of all sorts of thoughtcrime. Send comments to [email protected].

People love to hate them

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the most challenged books each year, ranking the titles that librarians were regularly asked to remove from shelves or restrict access to in schools and public libraries around the country.

The following represents the most challenged books of 2012, as well as the reasons cited for requesting the challenge.

  • 1) Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey; reasons: offensive language, unsuited for age group
  • 2) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie; reasons: offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  • 3) Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher; reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
  • 4) Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James; reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit
  • 5) And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson; reasons: homosexuality, unsuited for age group
  • 6) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini; reasons: homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  • 7) Looking for Alaska, by John Green; reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  • 8) Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz; reasons: unsuited for age group, violence
  • 9) The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls; reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit
  • 10) Beloved, by Toni Morrison; reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence

See freedom-to-read advocates and authors discussing Banned Books Week and reading from challenged and banned books at youtube.com/bannedbooksweek.



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