October marked the anniversary of the 30th Banned Book Week and the 15th annual Teen Read Week. The close celebration of the two seems appropriately ironic considering nine of the top 10 most frequently challenged books of 2011 were young adult, high school level novels.
At 16, you can drive. At 18, you can vote. Yet for some reason, despite the responsibilities that accompany an aging high school student, they’re still subjected to literary sheltering and censorship.
“Some of the most inspiring and mind-opening words ever written, threatened with removal because they offended a self-deputized vigilante over who wants to deny an entire community’s curiosity and passion to learn. Censorship is the enemy of truth— even more than a lie. A lie can be exposed; censorship can prevent us knowing the difference,” said broadcast journalist Bill Moyers.
This past May, a Tennessee school district banned young adult author John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska from the school curriculum due to its “pornographic” nature. The content in question makes up two pages of the book. Two pages out of 272. If you take two pages out of a novel and analyze only those pages, it will obviously be taken out of context.
Isn’t that what children are taught every day? Don’t we say, “never judge a book by its cover?” So when did it become okay to judge a book by two pages? When we do this, we’re sending a mixed message. If those two pages are seen as inappropriate, we should just call them that. There is no need to take away the whole book. Isn’t that just telling kids that two pages, or one sexual encounter, can ruin you? One moment in life shouldn’t have the power to define who you are, and two pages of a book should not be able to define it, either.
When you enter high school, you are 14 years old. By now you know the difference between fantasy and reality. You’ve finally accepted that your Hogwarts letter is never going to come and that you’re stuck in this muggle life. At 14, you know, or you should know anyway, that what you read, see and are exposed to is not always good.
And if this isn’t true, then why isn’t The Jersey Shore banned?
Why are we Keeping up with the Kardashians?
Why is Gossip Girl, a show centered around “the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite,” currently airing its sixth successful season, yet was the second most challenged book in 2006?
If we’re going to ban a book based on its “sexually-explicit” content, magazines should also be banned. An age limit should be put on Cosmopolitan. Provocative advertisements should be removed and all the sexy billboards replaced. Because the only difference between these media forms and a novel is that a book takes you on a journey. Why should a book be punished because it gives you more than an hour-long Kardashian distraction on a Sunday night?
As a parent, you can attempt to guide your child to happiness and to the “right” decisions. You can hope that your child stays away from drugs, alcohol, sex, the “bad crowd,” depression, anxiety and countless other things. You cannot, however, protect them from life; from their own, blossoming-right-in-front-of-your-eyes, life. This was your gift to them. This ever-changing, fast-paced, difficult-to-understand existence was a gift, and it’s up to them to decide what they want to do with it.
When you fight for a book to be banned from a school curriculum or library, you are not removing all sources of potentially inappropriate content from a teenager’s life; all you’re doing is removing one setting where they could find that content. You can take The Hunger Games, the third most challenged book of 2011, out of school libraries, but the movie is still out there, and with a rating of PG-13, it’s more than accessible to high-school aged students.
You can ban The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower because of profanity or allusions of suicide, but these things exist in real life. Try as the adults might, teenagers cannot be protected from emotions, particularly sadness. In the real world, and in a teenager’s hypersensitive bubble, suicide, self-inflicted injury and depression exist.
Books aren’t causing teenagers to kill themselves. If anything, they provide comfort, reassurance and guidance to those who are lost. To think that something like suicide could be glorified or promoted in a book is ridiculous because in a fictitious book world, just like in the real world, ending your own life is never portrayed as a good thing.
When you see a murder on Law and Order: SVU, you don’t go out and kill. Likewise, when you read something potentially inappropriate in a book, you don’t go out and do it.
Jamie Lee Curtis said it best in Freaky Friday, “Nothing is going on between her and this guy. Because if there was, she wouldn’t be writing about it in her diary, she’d be out there doing it.”
Unless someone has completely mastered the art of multi-tasking, let’s just assume it’s impossible to act in a self-destructive manner while reading a piece of literature, while appreciating written art, while learning more about yourself through a character than you ever could in a classroom.
A book doesn’t lead to negative actions. It will hopefully send you on a vicarious journey into the life of another, but it doesn’t send you on a downward decision-making spiral.
If someone is going to do wrong, make mistakes or head down a wrong path or two, a book’s not going to be the genesis of that, but it could very well be the light that guides them safely home again.