The one about banning books

I love to read. This is not news to most of my readers. I don’t have many childhood memories but the ones that I do have all involve books. I learned to read by listening to books on tape over and over again.  I made weekly trips to the library where my mom had to set a limit on how many books I was allowed to take out. A family vacation always included a bag full of books on my side of the car. Even today you’ll never see me without at least one book (and now that I have my Kindle it’s more like 100 books). As a book lover it would seem pretty obvious that I hate banning books. Now this doesn’t mean I think all books are good or are even appropriate for all people. But I was reminded how much I hate book banning today when I found out one of my new favorite authors is facing this very problem.

Rainbow Rowell is an author who moves from adult to young adult novels. She has written three books and all of them are fantastic. Her second book, Eleanor & Park, is about how a young girl and boy living in 1980’s Nebraska find love while riding the school bus together. It is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it. Eleanor and Park feel like outsiders for various reasons (she is overweight and lives in a destructive family; he is one of the few Koreans in their school) and find solace and comfort with each other. I loved this book so much I cried at the end of it. So you can imagine my shock when I read an article today talking about a citizen action group’s efforts to not only ban Rowell from visiting a local library, but to also punish the librarians who put her book on a recommended reading list!

Rowell was interviewed about the issue and I highly recommend reading the whole interview here. It seems the parents’ problem with the book was its profanity and sometimes sexual content. Without giving too much away from the book I have to take issues with both of these things. One of my favorite bloggers is Linda Holmes from NPR. She blogs at MonkeySee  and talked about this very book in an article published today. She writes

Indeed, most of the ugliness that concerned parents found in the book is the result of brutal honesty about the obstacles Eleanor and Park are facing. It comes from Rowell’s description of Eleanor’s abusive stepfather and her angry thoughts about him, of the boys who make snide remarks about her body, of the gossips who make her and Park both miserable, and of the hostile social universe they’re facing. The profanity by which the parents say they were “assaulted” in the opening pages is not profanity that comes from the main characters; it comes at them, the same way it comes at many, many kids in real schools.

I understand a parent’s desire to protect his or her children from certain things on television, in movies, and in books. But I will never understand a parent’s desire to force every other parent in the vicinity to enforce the same restrictions. If you don’t want your kid reading Eleanor & Park then don’t let them read it. But to insist that a local library not have the author of a book you find personally objectionable come to speak AND that the librarians who organized the visit be punished is pushing the boundaries of normal behavior.

The reasons this book is objectionable to some also concerns me a bit. This book is not 50 Shades of Grey (a book that in my opinion has no redeeming value). I’ll let Rainbow Rowell sum up my big problem with the objections to her book.

And that’s just it. Eleanor & Park isn’t some dystopian fantasy about a world where teenagers swear and are cruel to each other, and some kids have terrible parents. Teenagers swear and are cruel to each other. Some kids have terrible parents. Some girls have terrible step-dads who shout profanity at them and call them sluts – and some of those girls still manage to rise above it.When these people call Eleanor & Park an obscene story, I feel like they’re saying that rising above your situation isn’t possible.That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn’t even fit for good people’s ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful.

I read books, and was encouraged to read books as child to help me grow. Grow in reading comprehension and vocabulary, but also to grow in empathy and sympathy for others. To learn about worlds and places that were utterly foreign to me. Now when I was very young did I need help deciding what books were good to read? Yes. But, by the time I was the age of the characters in Eleanor & Park my mother had pretty much stopped policing what I read. She knew that I could police myself after having been taught for many years by her what was good and what was not. Just because characters in a book I read swore didn’t mean that I would. Just because characters in a book I read had sex didn’t mean that I would. And just because a book that I read validated a different worldview than mine didn’t mean that mine was invalidated. It meant that I learned how to be a critical thinker. I learned how to decide what I believed and why. Books like Eleanor & Park helped me do that. I’m not afraid of new things or new knowledge. I think the teenage years are the time when we start opening our minds to new things. Trying to shut out things we don’t understand doesn’t keep us safe. It keeps us stifled.

What about you? Do you think there is any scenario where banning books is the right choice? Some other books constantly banned: Huck Finn and pretty much everything by Judy Blume. What are your thoughts on banned book from the past? Could that impact how we deal with banning books in the present?

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