World Travelers and the Smallness of Censorship by Tanya Lee Stone
(Author’s Note: *these referenced books have been banned.)
I am so near-sighted my driver’s license used to include a warning label on the back that said “legally blind.” My sister and parents all have perfect eyesight, so my family teases that my bad eyesight stemmed from my face being buried in books since the moment I could read. It didn’t matter where I was. I read on my bed, in the car, on the front porch, in a blanket fort, underneath the seawall stairs, up in trees, or under the covers, clutching a flashlight long after I was supposed to be asleep. I still remember listening for my father’s footsteps on the stairs so I could click off the light at the last second and pretend to be sleeping as he checked on me. He was never fooled by my feigned sleep. When I was eight, he even made me a tiny, kid-sized reading loft in the corner of our family room. I would climb up the wooden ladder into the L-shaped nook he built about two feet below the ceiling, pick a book from my current pile, and settle in. And while—in those instances when I was supposed to be sleeping or doing homework or chores—he might have asked me why I was reading, he never questioned what I was reading. All reading materials were fair game in my house. And let me tell you, I grew up in a house of books. College professor for a Dad; elementary school librarian for a Mom. Books were everywhere, and trips to used book shops and libraries to find more books were frequent. One of my earliest physical memories of myself, in fact, is struggling to see around the tall stack of books piled high in my outstretched arms, trying not to trip over anything while I wobbled my way out of the library with my Saturday stash for the week.
For a time, our Dad required us to bring a new word to the dinner table to discuss. While my sister groaned, I was (incredibly annoyingly, I’m sure) excited to share whatever new word (or words) had caught my attention in my reading du jour. I pronounced us word travelers, caught up in conversation over meatloaf on the meanings of words like opulent or loquacious or trepidation. Word travelers, we. And truly, through books, I felt like a world traveler as well. I was one. I could sail away to a land of wild things with Max*, explore the mountains of Switzerland with Heidi, or fly across the world with Amelia Earhart. And forget being limited to one world—I tessered to Camazotz with Meg and her brother Charles*, visited the Kingdom of Wisdom with Milo and Tock*, and walked through the wardrobe with Lucy and her siblings*.
Perhaps even more lasting and impactful than the places I could go, though, were the different characters through whose eyes more realities and perspectives were imparted to me. Books like Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry*; Child of the Owl; William’s Doll*; Sounder*; and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH*. There were also books that pushed me to look at feelings or ideas I was already grappling with inside as a kid, like Blubber*, Charlotte’s Web*, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret*; Harriet the Spy*, and Bridge to Terabithia*. Bridge’s character Leslie was a product of a house of books similar to mine. To say I identified with her deeply is a vast understatement. This may have made her character’s demise slightly more terrifying to me, I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is that Bridge gave me insights into grief and loss and friendship and love that have stayed with me forever.
All of these examples (and I am only one reader sharing a very limited sampling of experience) helped shape me. If someone had taken these books from me, or frankly even steered me away from them by hiding them from my view, or shamed me for reading them in any way, I would have been harmed, or at the very least held back in my development as a traveler in this world. In short, kids who are allowed to read whatever children’s literature they are drawn to; kids who have access to an uncensored variety of settings, plots, characters, are kids who are not sheltered from thought. I can’t imagine how much more limited my life would have been if my reading choices had been curtailed, managed, censored. My world would have been made destructively smaller. It’s very possible—and even likely—I wouldn’t have grown up to be a writer. Especially not a writer who is, at her core, interested in highlighting the perspectives and stories of others. I am certain that my upbringing as a reader is what drew me to the aspiring astronauts’ history in Almost Astronauts, the pioneering paratroopers’ history in Courage Has No Color, and the complex stories of two groups of people as their narratives entwined with Yuzuru Takeshita’s in my newest book, Peace is a Chain Reaction.
Whether it strains their eyes or not, reading will open the minds of young people. It will open their hearts. And that alone will make their world bigger—and our world a bit brighter for the traveling.
Tanya Lee Stone is best known for her narrative nonfiction that focuses on overlooked histories. Her Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream won ALA’s Robert F. Sibert Medal; Courage Has No Color, about the first Black paratroopers in WWII, won the NAACP Image Award. Peace is a Chain Reaction is her newest book (Candlewick 9/13/22). She has published several picture books for kids, including one forthcoming about Rosalind Franklin (Christy Ottaviano Books/Little Brown, 2023) called Remembering Rosalind. Stone has a PhD in Creative Writing and is an Assistant Professor & Program Director of the Professional Writing Program at Champlain College, in Burlington, Vermont.
This is everything. ❤️
Fabulous article. I was hooked from the first word to the end, appalled that these referenced books are all banned.
Thank you, Tanya. This is so well stated and tells the human story of the importance of allowing books to be available–and the danger of shutting down THOUGHT if they’re banned.