Tuesday, September 24, 2013
On banning books
The first one: Let The Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred Taylor. In it, a young black boy is sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit, and I remember so clearly reading along expecting everything to be fine, expecting justice to prevail, and being shaken to my core when it didn't play out that way. (Because if that could happen in a book--couldn't it maybe happen in the real world, too?) I was eight.
After that there was My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Collier, a story about the American Revolution whose the last lines deal with the narrator's brother being executed with a burlap sack over his head. I was ten.
And after that was Slam Book, by Ann M. Martin of The Babysitters Club fame, which because of its author made me think I was entering into a world when things didn't go all that wrong. I was reading it at night after I was supposed to be in bed, sneaking in pages by the light from my closet, and late at night when I was the only one awake in the house I read a scene in which a girl who was being bullied at school drew a warm tub of water and went and got razor blades and told her dead mother she was coming. And because I was young, I didn't understand until the next chapter started with the line (seared into my memory) "Cheryl Sutphin was dead." I was eleven.
(Before that, of course, there was the Easter story, with all its attendant dramatizations that left me traumatized and sick.)
To be totally honest, I kind of wish I'd never read them. Words and images and scenarios stay with me--it's why I can't watch a certain kind of violent movies; it's why I avoid Easter services and sometimes news stories after I've glimpsed headlines that make me ill--and those traumatized me for a long time. Enough so, apparently, that decades later I remember them clearly.
But I also believe that reading them, and learning stark terrible facts about humanity, was an important thing to do. I think it made me a better person: more aware, more stunned by evil, more cognizant of what it meant to be a human in the world.
My daughter's favorite book right now is a collection of high-contrast black and white shapes with a total of maybe twenty words in the entire book, and maybe I'll feel differently when she's old enough to understand things. I'm sure I'll want to protect her from knowing about ugly and awful things in the world. I'm sure I'll want to preserve her sense of innocence and safety. I'm sure when she comes across ideas that might marginalize others, ideas that might be parading themselves as legitimate to mask some deep moral wrong, I'll panic that somehow she might think those are right or okay. Because words matter, and language matters, and the things that you're exposed to burrow into you and take a certain hold on your consciousness, sometimes in ways you don't even realize at the time.
But I don't ever want her to think that her experiences are everyone's experiences--that if she's been lucky, which I hope she will be, that everyone else is equally lucky and that there's no need for her to consider otherwise. I don't want her to blind herself to reality, even when that's painful. I don't want her to go to the library or to school and to be presented with a whitewashed, false, privileged world in which unpleasant or unsavory aspects--or, worse still, aspects that people deem unpleasant or inappropriate just because they're different--are simply censored out.
On the flip side, If there's something in her life she's struggling with, I want her to read about it. I want her to see the experience lived out on the page. I want her to know she's not alone, and I want her to know that perhaps there's a way to give voice to her experience.
I don't ever want her believing that she can't talk about who she is or about something that's happened to her or something that's happened to someone she cares about. I don't ever want her feeling like anything she might be going through is so shameful it must be scrubbed from existence.
No kid should feel that way. And we're so much worse off when we let that happen.
Happy Banned Books Week! Here's to reading honestly, to reading dangerously, and to reading the hell out of whatever you want.