Fifty Shades of Censorship, or How We Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Let Kids Read by Rosemary Hathaway
Sometime in mid-July, I got a text from an English teacher friend at a local high school. She’d just heard, via her principal, that a parent had complained about The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s brilliant short-story collection based in part on his own experiences fighting in Vietnam.
The book was assigned as summer reading for the student’s upcoming AP language and composition class, and the parent—having looked through it—asked for an alternate text. My friend texted to ask for ideas about what she might suggest. I made several recommendations—Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels among them—but the parent rejected all of our candidates and made her own choice, John Hersey’s Hiroshima.
Given that we’re just coming out of Banned Books Week, I’d like to use my Reading Lives moment to address not the dramatic cases of book challenges, like the ongoing battle over The Miseducation of Cameron Post at Cape Henlopen High School in Delaware, but the quieter and more common challenges posed to young people’s reading choices, often by parents themselves.
In reply to a story about the Cameron Post challenge that I posted to Facebook, a former student of mine commented, “OK, help! Now that my daughter is nine and reading above her grade level, these debates take on a new meaning for me. She has a friend reading lots of teen and YA novels, and while I don’t want to squelch her interests, these books have much more to offer a high schooler than a 4th grader. I always rely on the ‘age appropriate’ reasoning, and don’t know when I’m ready for her to be reading f-bombs, although if she’s a good listener, she certainly heard a few!”
The concern about “age-appropriateness” is legitimate, and is one of the reasons why Lexile measurements can be so misleading: just because a child can read a book doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for them personally. And parents, certainly, are the best equipped to gauge what their child can handle in a book. But it often seems that the concern isn’t so much about a book’s potential to disturb or “corrupt” its reader as it is anxiety about the very private and personal nature of the act of reading itself.
I have long thought, and discussed with students in my YA lit classes, that book challenges are motivated not so much by the specific, offensive content of any given text, but by the privacy of the act of reading itself. Concerned parent sees child deeply engaged in a book, oblivious to the external world (oblivious, in fact, to the parent), and becomes suspicious. What’s in that book that’s so interesting? And why can’t I monitor that experience? The process of reading, and the images and thoughts that reading generates, are largely internal and invisible, and some adults find that completely unnerving.
As a voracious, lifelong reader, I understand that reading can be a powerful, life-changing experience. Parents who are concerned about the potential of books to disturb their children clearly also believe that the act of reading is powerful—but they construct that power negatively, casting the act of reading and books themselves as dangerous and potentially corrupting.
In her now-infamous Wall Street Journal article about “dark” YA books, Meghan Cox Gurdon suggested that such books might not only disturb kids, but that they might also cultivate (gasp!) bad taste in literature. “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it,” she says, claiming that it is “a dereliction of duty [for parents] not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options.”
Let me tell you a story: One summer when I was in middle school, my parents and I went on a long road trip to the east coast. We spent a night at Chautauqua in New York, and before we left the next morning, we browsed around a bookshop and my parents offered to buy me a book for the trip. I chose a book of poems by Rod McKuen. (Hey, it was the late 1970s.)
My mom, an English teacher, objected on the basis of taste: “He’s a terrible poet.” My dad, not wanting to start a long day in a small car with a quarrel, intervened, saying, “Let her buy it. If that’s what she wants to read, let her read it.” Smugly, I carried Mr. McKuen’s book to the cashier.
Of course, my mom was right: the poems were terrible, even though I didn’t recognize that at the time.
And guess what happened as a result of my parents’ “dereliction of duty”? Dear Reader, I grew up to be an English professor.
Clearly, that book ruined me. If only she’d snatched that book from my hands and given me a “more desirable option.” Which I probably would have studiously refused to read. Gurdon clearly has forgotten how unwelcome such lessons in taste are to the average person between the ages of, oh, seven and death.
And what is the magical age at which books cease to be “harmful”? I remember being utterly freaked out by the scene in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure when the title character arrives home to find that his eldest child has hanged himself and his siblings in a closet “because we were too menny.” I was haunted by World War I for weeks after reading All Quiet on the Western Front. And John Irving’s The Cider House Rules repeatedly describes an explicit photo of a donkey that no amount of brain bleach will ever eradicate.
All of these I read when I was in college or grad school. I’ve read other books in the two decades since that have disturbed me, as well as many that have moved me to tears, made me laugh out loud, or inspired me. Don’t good books continue to affect us deeply regardless of our age? Isn’t that why we read in the first place?
Adults who challenge books are more often trying to protect themselves and their ideas about what childhood and adolescence should be than they are trying to protect real children and adolescents.
So, I’ll end with an affirmation (shamelessly paraphrased from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) that I wish such adults would repeat to themselves when they see a kid engrossed in a book: A child, even the smallest one, is filled with thoughts you can’t know. Instead of balking at such a thought, let’s embrace and encourage the complex, private mystery that is reading.
Rosemary Hathaway is an Associate Professor of English at West Virginia University where she teaches courses in young-adult literature and folklore.