When I worked as a librarian, I once had a heated discussion with my director. See, I was running a book club for teens in conjunction with the American Library Association that summer. In fact, the ALA was sending me the books for the program. I had kids in my group from age 12 through 16, and they were all bright, avid readers and seekers of knowledge. We used the study guides sent with the books by the ALA, but we often rambled off into interesting discussions of our own. Good stories are wonderful. Good stories that make us think are priceless. I hope I’m not the only person in the world who feels that way.
My director, who was nearing retirement, did not necessarily agree. Apparently.
One of the books the ALA chose for the summer book club was The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer. The book is a lovely coming-of age-story about a 12-year-old boy, Gabe, who lived in the foster care system until his uncle was found. He lived with his uncle, a crusty old hermit, for two years. At the beginning of the novel, Gabe comes home from school and finds his uncle dead from a heart attack. He’s so scared of going back into the system that he doesn’t tell anyone about the death. And no one notices, because no one has seen the uncle in years. The next day, his uncle’s body disappears and Gabe finds a note in the mailbox that reads, I HAVE A SECRET. DO NOT BE AFRAID. So begins a friendship in correspondence which leads to a lyrical lesson about how two people can save each other. The novel does something really cool aside from the story itself. Gabe is a reader. And he tells a bit about the books he reads and what they mean to him. I LOVE it when good books for young people recommend more good books for young people.
Now back to my director. We both had a strict policy of not reading books to or with our young patrons without reading them first. I had read The Mailbox and, well, you can tell from my description I thought it worthy of the young minds I was guiding. My director had not read the book. She read one of those reviews—you know, the ones that tell all the bad things about a book and why you might not want to let your kids read them—and she came into the library on a mission. A mission to ban this terrible book from my reading club. Why?
Because in the novel Gabe reads Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men! He doesn’t say, “Hey, I jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and you should really try the drugs I was on when I did it.” He reads a classic novel with several important messages in it that is lucky it barely escaped making my Recommended Reading list. I was shocked. Floored. Flabbergasted. “Wait a minute,” I said to her, “we are Librarians (yes, with a capital L—it’s an important job!). Aren’t we supposed to encourage kids to read anything and everything?”
She railed about the way Of Mice and Men ends. I pointed out that The Mailbox is not the same novel and the ending of Steinbeck’s novel does not occur in Shafer’s. The point, I believe, of even mentioning Of Mice and Men, was to spark a little curiosity in the reader, to let the young reader know that there was this great book out there if they choose to read it.
Eventually, I won the battle. My book club and I read The Mailbox together and enjoyed it immensely. But I was lucky that even when I was seeing red I was able to make a logical argument for the book. It had never occurred to me that a librarian, of all people, might agree with any form of book banning, so the whole blind-sided part of the conversation did stymie my reasoning skills.
With Banned Book Week approaching (September 21-27), that memory is kinda haunting me. So I thought I would take this chance to encourage you to look at the Banned Book lists (http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks) with your children, pick a book from it and read it together. One of the most important jobs we have as parents is paying attention to our kids—what they’re doing on the internet, what they’re watching on television, and yes, what they’re reading. If we are there to guide them, there is no reason to ever ban a book. In the meantime, here are some of the books on the list that carried me right back to the feeling I had during that disagreement with my director (remember, these books are meant to be banned from everyone, not just young readers):
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
1984, by George Orwell
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (Ha. Ha.)
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Captain Underpants (series), by Dave Pilkey
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Here’s the thing. Banned Book Week is the time to watch Footloose. Not that new one, the Kevin Bacon one. You know the scene where the parishioners go to the library and start burning books and John Lithgow, the well-meaning but dance-forbidding minister says, “Who elected all of you to be the saviors of everybody’s souls?..Satan is not in these books.” Here he points at his own heart. “He’s in here. He’s in your hearts.” That can be said of any kind of evil, no matter your beliefs. It is up to us as individuals to keep the evil out. Sure, there are going to be books you don’t want your kids to read. But does that mean the book should be banned, that NO ONE should get to read it just because you don’t want your child to read it? I am of the firm opinion that the answer is no. Just as you wouldn’t want me coming into your home and telling you how to homeschool, I don’t have the right to tell an entire nation what they can read.
So give these books a chance. Or at least allow the rest of us to do so.