I’m often surprised by which books are frequently challenged or banned in our society. For example, take these 19 books the American Library Association reports are frequently challenged:
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
- Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
- The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
- Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
- A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- 1984 by George Orwell
- The Witches by Roald Dahl
- James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
- A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
- Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
While I respect the reservations some have about these books, my stomach also turns a bit at the lessons lost by not reading them. Banned Books Week is a time to push back in the name of dealing with ideas as opposed to hiding from them.
Dangerous Ideas or Pain Avoided?
I’m so glad many of these titles were available to me growing up, precisely because they were more real and gritty. While I also enjoyed the fluffier stuff, books like these gave me traction to deal with my own challenging circumstances and helped me avoid certain mistakes in a way that fluff just can’t.
Not Appropriate for Children? Maybe…
Though parents and leaders concerned about age-appropriateness definitely have a point, I think this ought to be dealt with as individual families who know their children best, not through banned book lists. Definitely, some of these book descriptions would concern me as a parent, but in many cases I would read the book myself and make a true assessment, not rely on some banned book list.
Even better in some cases, why not read many of these books with an interested child so that you can discuss the issue you are concerned about? That seems so much more loving than avoiding what our kids are confronting at school or other places beyond our direct influence.
A Better Solution
I say all this even while respecting how media, including books, is powerful and can unnecessarily disrupt our lives through hyper-focus on issues like sex, violence, and tone. I personally am very choosy about what I read because my life’s hard enough without all that mental dead-weight. I’m not saying that every book is worthy of our time or should be dwelt on. I’m just saying that slapping titles on a list is as dangerous as being non-discerning about what you read.
There’s no shortcut to evaluating books one by one. You can see from my list of 19 titles how many exquisitely good books are lost by being lumped onto some ‘bad list’. Obviously which are good and which are not good will be defined differently by just about every person. But there’s such a huge spectrum of issues at play among the titles on banned book lists that relying on them feels uninformed.
A better way is to rely on reviews from a source you trust, which articulates or warns about content that is potentially bothersome. I like reviews that go so far as to tell you how a subject is dealt with.
For example, one book might mention prostitution as a societal reference or part of who a character is, and that might include its share of gritty realities, while another goes into the details of the prostitute’s day-to-day business transactions. I’m personally probably not going to read the second one, while I might the first one. The first would make me uncomfortable, which I welcome if it helps me understand humanity better, but the second would go to another level where I’d be titillated or manipulated by the content, which doesn’t fit in with my values.
My point is, both could easily land on the same banned book list.
Check in with Your Local Library
My local library is doing a bunch of fun things next week including taking mug shots of yourself reading a banned book, drawing a torn page from a jar to guess which banned book it came from, and more. Your local library might be doing something similar.