January 16, 2017
More than 40 years ago, my seventh grade English teacher began the year by telling us that we were definitely not allowed to read “The Catcher in the Rye” because we weren’t “ready” for it. So naturally we all went out and read it immediately.
I told this story to my son when he was a seventh grader. I meant it as a funny story, and I pointed out that it had taken me years to appreciate that teacher’s pedagogic strategy. But then my son read the book himself right away. The mere long-ago echo of a possible ban was enough to make it interesting.
Adults have been known to worry a great deal about the possible corrupting influence of the printed word on children. If you look at the list of “frequently challenged children’s books” maintained by the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, you will see a wide range of touchy topics. (A book is “challenged” when someone tries to get it removed from a library or a school curriculum.)
Books can get challenged because they involve magic (Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling), or because they offend religious sensibilities. “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle, has been challenged as both overly and insufficiently religious. Some books are challenged because they depict children behaving, well, childishly (Junie B. Jones, the heroine of a series of books by Barbara Park, gets in trouble for using words like “stupid.”) So adults worry that books may be bad for children’s morals and for their manners.
“I think it happens in the U.S. more than in some other countries,” said Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and critic. “There’s a squeamishness in the U.S. about body parts I think that goes back to the Puritan tradition, and has never completely died out.” He pointed to the controversy around Maurice Sendak’s 1970 children’s book “In the Night Kitchen,” which centered on the illustrations showing the naked — and anatomically correct — little boy whose nocturnal adventures make up the story.
“Anything with any sexual content is likely to attract attention and hostility,” said Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “Regardless of the nature of its message — whether it is deemed to be helpful or instructive or insightful in some way or just merely titillating — people don’t make that distinction.”
In fact, banned book lists can be a great resource for parents looking for books that teach kids about the world and themselves.
When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling. Here are a few books that are often challenged, yet present great opportunities for children to learn.
“IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL: CHANGING BODIES, GROWING UP, SEX AND SEXUAL HEALTH” BY ROBIE HARRIS. Your children should have age-appropriate books to help them learn about bodies, and you can find plenty of those on any list of banned or challenged books. This book, with illustrations by Michael Emberley has become a classic of information about bodies, development, and sexuality. First published in 1994, it has now gone through several editions and updates. Ms. Harris, who also wrote “It’s So Amazing,” for younger children, and “It’s Not the Stork,” for those even younger, says most of the challenges to her books have revolved around issues of gay sexuality, though masturbation and contraception can also be flash points. (She is also a good friend, and I have helped at times with pediatric questions on some of these and other books.)
“CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS” BY DAV PILKEY. This series, which has long been legendary for its compelling power over small boys, has sometimes been at the top of the most-challenged list, perhaps in part because (surprise) there are many jokes about undergarments. These books will definitely help children appreciate that bodies and their functions can be profoundly funny and silly (actually, most children seem to know this anyway).
In addition to being attacked for their potty-mouthed humor, the “Captain Underpants” books have come under scrutiny because they are full of children playing tricks and disobeying and generally creating havoc; again, as with Junie B. Jones and her big mouth, there is this strange sense that children need stories about obedient model children.
“ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET” BY JUDY BLUME. In this widely beloved novel by Judy Blume, originally published in 1970, but still on the most-challenged list, the narrator is deeply preoccupied with the when and how of menstruation. An other Judy Blume perennial, “Deenie,” which came out in 1973, is about a young girl struggling with scoliosis and the brace she has to wear, but it was the most attacked of her books, Ms. Blume says, because it included references to masturbation.
Much of the controversy about Judy Blume’s books centered around information about puberty. “I think the feeling was, if my child doesn’t read this, my child won’t know about it or it’s not going to happen to my child,” said Ms. Blume. “I used to get up there on stage and say, I have news for you, your kids are going to go through puberty whether you like it or not, so why not help them — it’s going to happen whether they read my books or no books or somebody else’s book.”
Ms. Blume said that often when adult tourists come into Books & Books Key West, the independent bookstore that she helped found and where she often works, they want to tell her how much they learned from her novels. “It’s like, thank you, thank you, my mother never told me anything and I wouldn’t have known anything without your books.”
Ms. Blume said she recently sold a copy of “And Tango Makes Three,” the 2005 book by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell about two male penguins who hatch an egg and raise the baby together (you’ll find it on the list of challenged picture books) to a man who had just adopted a little girl with his male partner. “That’s my new thrill as a bookseller,” she said, “to put that right book into the hands of someone who appreciates what it’s saying.”
“I AM JAZZ” BY JESSICA HERTHEL AND JAZZ JENNINGS. This 2014 picture book about being transgender has been at the center of controversy recently with some schools coming under attack for using it in the curriculum, and others arguing that it can be helpful in teaching tolerance.
Some banned and challenged books upset adults because they teach children that the world is a complicated and sometimes disturbing place, in which good people sometimes behave badly and evil sometimes goes unpunished. This category stretches from modern young adult “problem novels” to great classics of literature. What makes a book “disturbing” often is tied to what makes it interesting or important or worth reading.
If you look over lists of frequently challenged young adult books, you’ll find everything from “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier (challenged for violence and for scenes of masturbation) to Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl” (challenged for sexual explicitness and for depressing tragic outcome). Also on the list — Alice Walker’s “Color Purple” (challenged for sexual explicitness and bad language), and of course, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which last month was removed from classrooms and libraries in schools in Accomack County, Va., along with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when a parent complained that the books contained racial slurs.
Those are all books I came across and read on my own, growing up, and yes, they were disturbing, in places, and yes, there were things I didn’t completely understand, and basically skipped over to return to on later readings. (This is a very valuable skill possessed by most precociously bookish children.) I was never forbidden any book by my book-loving parents (we all know what the result would have been), and I don’t think I ever tried to stop my children from reading any book (we all know what the result would have been), though I occasionally said something like, “I think that one may creep you out, so maybe you want to wait.”
One of the jobs — and joys — of parenthood is recommending books at what you think are the right ages. On of the corollaries is that sometimes you get it wrong and your child is not ready — or is much farther along than you thought. Mostly, as a parent, you should be glad and proud if your child is a reader.
In fact, many of the books which are on the most-challenged lists are also frequently assigned as classics (and being assigned may be what gets you challenged). Common Sense Media has a nice list of books on this border between classic and controversial, suggesting parents and kids read them together and discuss why people find them disturbing.
As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book “out of your comfort zone,” however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.