Thoughts About Banned and Challenged Books

This past week in the United States was known as Banned Books Week. For those who don’t know, it’s an annual awareness campaign that emphasizes our First Amendment rights to the freedom to having books that include viewpoints that may be a little different. There have been many books that have either been challenged and/or banned altogether, mainly by parents who don’t like what their kids are reading for school, and so this week is to not only celebrate those books, but also shed light on why they were challenged.

As an author, I like to keep up with what’s going on in the literary world. So I knew that this campaign was going on during its usual last week of September. However, it wasn’t until I was actually at a bookstore earlier this week and saw a Banned Books Week display did I really see two things: 1. The kind of books that have been challenged and/or banned and 2. The reasons – some more overly analyzed and butt-hurt than others – often trace back to how the books meet reality.

You don’t know what I mean by that? Allow me to go through a few examples I saw from that display:

  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was on display for being challenged for writings that were “too depressing” and included “rebellion against parental authority.” These reasons right off the back had me thinking, “Thanks for pointing out the obvious.” Of course the book can be deemed depressing at times, for this diary was written while Anne was hiding from the Nazis! Being constantly aware of that reality can definitely bring a young person like herself down at times. As for “rebellion against parental authority,” well, what teenager hasn’t done that to some extreme or another? Anne was thirteen when she and her family went into hiding, and to be in such a small space for such a long time when you’re in your adolescence can have one almost drive themselves mad. Honestly, I would have been more surprised if Anne hadn’t acted on some form of rebellion, for she had such a freeing spirit.
  • Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was on the list for “racism, insensitivity, and offensive language.” While I have never read this book, I have read Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which has Huckleberry Finn in it. Both books not only include two young orphans who are rollicking about their lives on the wild side, but were written in a time when slavery of black people was still a thing. When people complain about how there’s racism in both of these books, well, maybe our country shouldn’t have been so racist at the time. It was Twain’s way of incorporating reality. If anything, it’s important to read these books if not for anything else but for that reason, as a reminder to the younger generations why that attitude and outlook is wrong.
  • Erin Gruwell’s The Freedom Writers Diary made the list for “racial slurs and sexual content.” First of all, as one teacher pointed out when she defended her use of the book for her English class, “that’s how [the kids] talk.” And it’s true! It’s not Gruwell’s first-hand experience of educating the “at-risk” kids who would eventually call themselves the Freedom Writers; it’s the kids themselves who are writing these entries. For the most part, these kids don’t come from nice neighborhoods in the suburbs. Many of them have done time in juvenile hall, some have lost family members to gang violence, and a vast number of them have either witnessed or faced racism themselves. The people who’ve challenged this book clearly haven’t thought through the kind of environments these kids came from, and how that affects who they are and how they talk.
  • The most shocking book I saw on display was, wait for it, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Apparently, this book has been challenged for “sexual definitions.” Dictionaries are supposed to be the gatekeepers to definitions to almost every word possible, and obviously, that would include definitions to sexual content. The people who have challenged this book need to realize that kids are going to have to learn about sex eventually, and honestly, the dictionary is a good way of breaking it down, one definition at a time.

Whether if it’s a memoir, a piece of fiction, or something as informative as a dictionary, reality is going to make its way into written context in some way or another. If people don’t like it, then they don’t have to read it. If it’s a book that their kids are reading for school, perhaps consider the reasoning why you don’t like the book and consider why the teacher chose it otherwise. If anything, you just might learn something if you’re open-minded enough. Besides, the threads of reality in writing are what we as humans can grasp in finding connections and a sense of familiarity. That is something that should never be taken away.

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