from Ban This Book
by Alan Gratz
Tom Doherty Associates/Starscape, 2017
Intellectual Freedom is established in the Bill of Rights. A person’s right to search for and find information on any topic of interest gleaned from a variety of sources and viewpoints is encompassed in the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clause.
After all, how can we make informed decisions if we can’t learn and discuss all sides of current social issues? How can we decide the fairness of our laws and judicial system if we don’t read widely and listen to different opinions? How can we distinguish facts from opinions?
One of the main purposes of reading fiction, especially, is to learn about life. What is expected, what is surprising? What “rings true,” what is far-fetched? Isn’t it safer and more practical to expect our kids to be able to reason out a problem when they can vicariously identify with the experiences of sympathetic main characters, well-drawn settings, and conceivable plots? When they can imagine themselves in a difficult situation and see what happens when a character makes a bad decision?
Remember The Scarlet Letter? Just in case, here it is in a nutshell. Hester Prynn and Reverend Dimmsdale had a child out of wedlock. She paid the extreme cost of public humiliation, emotional distress, and social isolation. He was consumed by guilt. Hester’s husband who everyone thought was lost at sea, returned to hide behind a false identity and was determined to win revenge.
When I taught 11th-grade English for a short while, a long time ago, I introduced The Scarlet Letter to my students. While Nathaniel Hawthorne’s own lifetime, pre-Civil War America, was hard for them to imagine, so was his historical setting, 1640s Puritan Massachusetts, two hundred years earlier. But the story was as timely as ever. It still is.
The Scarlet Letter was banned shortly after it was published then enjoyed a pretty quiet century or so becoming a classic. In 1961, some parents in Michigan called it “pornographic and obscene.” Their request to have the book removed from the curriculum was denied, but the book continues to be challenged.
I say this: If you were 16 again, wouldn’t all the public humiliation, emotional distress, social isolation, and guilt make you think twice about consequences?
With very few exceptions, material published for an adult audience is mostly left alone.
But materials, especially books, fiction and non-fiction, for children is more rigorously considered. Whether it is an author, editor, purchasing agent for a bookstore, or even a librarian who chooses to “self-censor,” a “well-meaning” school-board member, principal, or community activist who wants to “protect” children from the realities of growing up, or a teacher who chooses to stay “non-controversial,” most children’s reading is at least somewhat restricted.
In 1939, the American Library Association adopted the Library Bill of Rights. It’s been amended several times. The inclusion of “age” was reaffirmed on January 23, 1996. Most recently, in January, 2019, amendments were added to include programming, meeting spaces, and on-line activities of minors.
Article V states: A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views. You can access the Library Bill of Rights here, and the 2019 amendments here.
Parents can and do retain the right to oversee their childrens’ activities. This can and does include what children read and have access to.
What we as a free and democratic society can NOT allow is for some other adult or group, well-meaning, self-serving, or over-zealously protectionist, to control what is available to all of us, and most meaningful in this current place we find ourselves, our children. No one should be able to override our own right to deem what is appropriate for our own children by saying what is appropriate for all children.
In other words, like Amy Anne Ollinger, Alan Gratz’s main character in Ban This Book says so clearly, “…I said the same thing to all of them. It was something Mrs. Jones had said the first day Mrs. Spencer came in to challenge Captain Underpants, and I practiced it over and over until I got it right every time:
‘Nobody has the right to tell you what books you can and can’t read except your parents.’”
Let’s protect our kids. But not from the real world. Not from Truth. Let’s protect them from harm by giving them the all the vicarious experiences, all the tools they need for sharp and clear imaginations, and all the courage they need to make good decisions.
After all, our kids are our future.
-—be curious! (and read to a child)