Let’s be honest, at least in the United States, when a book is “banned,” the book itself doesn’t go away. There are probably more ways than ever to get your hands on any book you want, even if it’s been pulled from a library or school curriculum. In some cases, it can even enhance the visibility of a book and promote its sales. In one of the activities I did with my older students, I asked them to interview their teachers and find out what their favorite books were and why. When they reported their findings, we did some research and discovered that overwhelmingly the books their teachers liked the most were those that historically had been banned or challenged. Most of these books are classics and are in no danger of being erased from public consciousness, no matter how often someone complains about their content.
So while most books aren’t at risk of being completely removed from society, you might be wondering why book “bans” matter. Why should I still highlight this week with my students? That’s because how we talk about these books — and the subjects and people they represent — matters, especially for children.
When I talk to my older students about the subject, they are already in a sort of debating state of mind. Activities usually consist of looking at banned books from the past and often laughing at some of the reasons they were challenged. For example, did you know that The Wizard of Oz was challenged to “portray women in important leadership roles” or that Charlotte’s Web was challenged for including talking animals? But these courses also include conversations about representation. Do they see books with characters and stories that match their own or do they feel left out? Who can decide which story should be told or is appropriate? How would you like to see everyone weigh the legitimacy of your experiences or feelings? These are still open questions, but in a climate where adults discuss the portrayal of children with a healthy dose of vitriol, I hope this gives them permission to frame things on their own terms.
On the other hand, discussing forbidden books with younger students is particularly difficult. Believe it or not, young children trust adults and if an adult calls something wrong or forbidden, they are likely to completely believe it. I know some of you might be thinking “as good as they should!” yourselves at this point. But here’s the thing. When I look at the sea of faces I teach, I see children whose stories are told in these books. Children who may need these books to see that they are not alone. Who will be healed by seeing their inner thoughts or feelings or communities or traumas represented, not hurt. So, instead of talking about prohibitions, we ask, “Is it important that everyone can see themselves in the books?” through activities such as examining representation in popular books and learning that books can be “windows and mirrors”. As a librarian working with children, I feel a deep responsibility to inspire them to feel entitled to demand that their stories and those of others be told.
Since the inception of the children’s publishing industry, adults have argued over what is or is not appropriate for children to read. I honestly believe that the vast majority of book disputes by individuals are made out of sincere concern, but the reason I teach Banned Books Week is because of the way these conversations usually unfold. We can talk about books all we want, but we would do well to remember that when we talk about the characters and the lives in these books, we are talking about real children. And when those debates include outright contempt and venom, we become the problem we claim to want to solve. I teach forbidden books to let children know that they have the right to have their stories told, no matter what adults say.