Banned Books Week: Who should decide for whom?

As I’ve noted this week, one of the debates that’s going on is whether “banned” is a misleading word when it comes to what Banned Books Week is about. Cut to the bone, the question is basically whether restricting access to/removing a book a parent believes is age inappropriate is “banning” a book or censorship.

Here’s the American Library Association’s view: “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.” To me, there is a significant difference. Restrictions on access to materials are one thing. Completely removing an item or keeping it out of the school entirely goes beyond the pale.

Why can I live with the former but not the latter? My two cents on the subject comes in large part from having raised three daughters who were and are voracious readers. I don’t believe it is the place of other parents to determine what is appropriate for MY children, just as I shouldn’t tell them what books THEIR children should or shouldn’t read. And when it comes to the educational system, I will defer to the teachers who come up with the reading list, whether it’s in third grade, middle school English or Advanced Placement History. Given that my experience is raising three kids so I dealt with those grade levels three times each over the years, I think the teachers who deal with hundreds of kids of whatever age during their careers are far better qualified than I to determine what is appropriate for the age or grade level.

That’s why removing materials crosses the line for me. Someone else — usually not the teacher — is dictating what is or isn’t appropriate for my family. At least with restrictions, young people still have access to the materials, usually if their parent or guardian consents. And even such restrictions need not be necessary for classroom materials. For example, an option the Sioux Falls School District affords in its policy on instructional materials is to have the student and their parent or guardian meet with the teacher to discuss if there are “alternative instructional materials” of “comparable instructional value.” In other words, if I have a legitimate objection to my kid reading a particular book, I can work with the school to find something else while not imposing my rules on other people’s children.

It also seems some parents don’t realize the opportunities that come from their kids reading books that may challenge them or their parents may not like — it provides an opportunity for open interaction and discussion. There is no question it is a parent’s job to supervise what their children do and read. But no parent should tell another that they aren’t capable of dealing with and discussing difficult and thorny issues some books raise with their children. is afraid of their child engaging in independent thought. I agree fully with Pennsylvania county court Judge Curtis Bok in an opinion he wrote in 1949:

I should prefer that my own three daughters meet the facts of life and the literature of the world in my library than behind a neighbor’s barn, for I can face the adversary there directly. If the young ladies are appalled by what they read, they can close the book at the bottom of page one; if they read further, they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome.

My three daughters seemed to have not only survived but thrived in my libertarian approach to their reading. Although “What’s that you’re reading?” was frequently heard in our house, there was never condemnation, simply encouragement to read (and, to be completely honest, maybe a tad bit of ridicule depending on the book). At the same time, the rule that you don’t dictate what other people’s kids read applies equally to my approach and a more restrictive one. Saying “You shalt not read this” to anyone other than yourself or your own child is to stifle their freedom of inquiry.

So many adults are exhausting themselves worrying about other people corrupting their children with books, they’re turning kids off to reading instead of turning them on.

Judy Blume, Introduction, Places I Never Meant To Be

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