“These books are banned?”
It’s the incredulous question we get repeatedly each year when we put up our display for Banned Books Week, which winds down for 2015 tomorrow. We answer that well, the books aren’t technically banned, at least not in any widespread fashion (it’s admittedly an incendiary tactic to get people talking, and it works), but at some point in time, some group or individual didn’t take kindly to them and attempted to have them removed from schools, libraries, and/or stores. One of the main points of Banned Books Week is to celebrate the fact that most of the books that have faced banning attempts have remained available. Hooray for freadom.
Once people get over the initial shock of the mere concept of book banning, they usually want to know why certain books have been targeted for censorship. Reasons for bannage are all over the map, and sometimes it’s not clear at first glance why anyone would want to put the kibosh on certain books. This can be especially true for children’s books, as their covers generally look so cute and harmless. A particular children’s book on our display, Simply Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, kept catching my attention this past week, because every time I glanced at it, I would wonder why such an innocent-looking book for kids could draw so much ire. I took to the American Library Association’s page on Banned Books Week to try to get to the bottom of the mystery, and to my surprise, Naylor’s Alice series makes five appearances on ALA’s Top Ten Challenged Books lists between the years of 2001 and 2011. Some of the stated reasons for the series being challenged are “offensive language,” “sexually explicit,” and “unsuited to age group.”
It’s the “unsuited to age group,” which is listed as a reason for many books on ALA’s lists being challenged, that interested me the most. I can understand parents taking issue with kid’s books that deal with issues like sex; everyone has their own timeline and exposure preferences for when and how to handle such things with their children. Those who challenge books like those in the Alice series do so in the name of protecting their kids. It’s a fine goal, but the execution is flawed, because by restricting access to certain books in the name of protecting some, you’re hurting others by depriving them of something they may find not just entertaining, but potentially, highly beneficial. While searching the TexShare databases to find more information about Banned Books Week, I fortuitously came across an essay that describes how many readers of the Alice series find it to be a positive influence on their lives. I won’t go into great detail (you can read the full essay here if you’d like), but the author culled the written reactions of many readers of the series, and a major recurring theme was that reading the books and relating to the Alice character has helped adolescent girls better understand themselves, construct an identity, and deal with issues in their own lives. With its mature themes, it may not be for every young girl, and parents should certainly be involved in suitability decisions for their own children, but it’s hard to argue against keeping something that has produced such meaningfully positive experiences for so many accessible to the public.
I was glad to find (and now, to share) the Alice essay, as the example it provides of the usefulness and value of controversial material is what Banned Books Week is all about. Read freely, my friends.