A wonderful post today about censorship (or, its opposite) by Kelly Barnhill, and the ensuing conversation on Twitter got me thinking about how lucky I was growing up. But let me back up for a second. If you’re not familiar with her work, Kelly Barnhill is the author of The Mostly True Story of Jack, among other things. She also happens to be a parent, and so, for me, her post about not censoring YA Literature packs a double punch. She knows of what she speaks, people.
Said post sparked a conversation, which seems particularly timely, as Banned Books Week is not far off. The conversation was essentially about what people were and were not “officially allowed” to read, or teach, at school. I was, and am, amazed and saddened. Even here, even now, when information is so readily available, there are still people whose first reaction to something that frightens them is to bury their heads in the sand. Instead of engaging with issues that make them uncomfortable, they wave their hands, and try to make those issues go away. Like putting a pillowcase over one’s head and yelling ‘I can’t see you!’ means the thing one was looking at blinks out of existence. Interesting strategy. The worst offenders are those who try to ban books they haven’t even read because of what they’ve heard those books are about. There aren’t even words…
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the good folk, the fearless ones. As I said, I was lucky growing up. I didn’t appreciate back then how apparently rare my experience might be. (I could be wrong, and I hope I am. Please, please, tell me other people grew up this way.)
In my elementary and high school libraries, and in my local library, I don’t remember any book being off limits. It’s possible there were books the libraries didn’t carry, but nobody every made a big deal about it. Banned books weren’t an issue. No one distributed lists of books we weren’t allowed to read, or which required special permission to check out. No one batted an eye when, in sixth grade, we were assigned a biography project, and I did mine on Jack the Ripper. I marched right up to the circulation desk of my local library, and checked out a thick tome on serial killers, and no one told me I couldn’t. My teachers didn’t haul me in for psychological counseling based on one project, and amazingly enough, as an adult, I haven’t mass-murdered anyone. All without the benefit of censorship or adult intervention. Who would have guessed? Trust kids, and they might just prove trustworthy.
During high school my assigned classroom reading included The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World and Slaughter House Five. All of these books appear on the American Library Association’s list of Banned and Challenged Classics. My school was at least half Jewish, and we were still required to read The Merchant of Venice. Instead of pretending anti-Antisemitism is not now and never was a thing, our teacher engaged us in a calm, rational discussion about stereotypes and historic attitudes towards Judaism. She treated us like reasonable human beings, capable of grasping the basic concepts of fiction, opinion, and reality. Lo and behold, the world did not end.
Some of my favorite books of all time, those I hold dearest to my heart, are included on the ALA’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. Right there, smack dab at the top of the list is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Know who introduced the book to me? A teacher. Possessing the Secret of Joy, a beautiful, brutal, painful book about female circumcision, was also introduced to me by a teacher. Our school library did require permission to sign the book out, but they didn’t require a parent’s permission, only a teacher’s.
So, to my teachers, and to the librarians I grew up with, thank you. Thank you for trusting me. Thank you for not burying your heads in the sand. Thank you for treating me like a rational human being. I hope that by not growing up to be a lunatic, anti-Semitic serial killer, I have made you proud.