Today, when I asked a group of middle school students why they thought books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had been banned, one student said it was probably because “they tell the truth.”
I love my job. Especially during Banned Books Week.
My first interaction with the banning of books was through the baseball movie, “Field of Dreams.” Amy Madigan and Kevin Costner go to a school board meeting where the Iowa townspeople are, as Madigan’s character Annie says, “talking about banning books again! Really subversive books, like ‘The Wizard of Oz’... ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’...”
I always thought that those particular books were hyperbolic examples, but it turns out, both have been challenged and banned at various times. The Diary of a Young Girl was challenged earlier this year in Michigan because some parents found the unedited descriptions of a girl going through puberty to be “pornographic.” This irritates me to no end—the hushing up of the messy corporeal reality of being human, adding a strange level of shame towards the normal bodily development of a person, of a teenage girl who is remarkably reassuring in her honest addressing of the confusion of growing up.
Otto Frank didn’t want those parts of his daughter’s diary published and edited them out of the first editions of the diary. Also the bits about Anne’s rocky relationship with her mother were taken out. It seemed too personal to him. In that light, I lean towards censorship, towards a parent protecting the privacy of their child, the public image of someone who did not survive to tell us how she feels about her teenage scribbles being shared throughout the world. Barring her voice, respecting her father’s wishes seems respectful.
But, I don’t know, really. I like honesty, and I like privacy.
Questions like this is what I really savor about Banned Books Week. Not that we get to point and accuse and judge different groups who believe different things, but that we have a chance to examine the merits of a pushed envelope and to explore our own preferences and choices. I like that people have deep enough values that they’ll make something of a passionate ass of themselves to try to get Harry Potter or Julie of the Wolves banned, although I do wish that these same people could expand their worldview a tetch and see more good than harm in such works. The whole idea of banning and censorship gets into ethics, and what sort of world we want to live in, want to build. This conversation, under any cover, makes me as happy as a pig in shit (or a librarian in Banned Books Week.)
Let’s take Anne Frank. Her descriptions of going through puberty are (presumably) honest observations and explorations of the fact that her body is exploding and changing, even as her life remains hidden and static. The sticking point is how normal she is—that there is something eternal and companionable in her way of being. That is part of the power of the whole diary. We read her diary, visit her life, and try to extrapolate it out over six million to understand the human weight of persecution, of war, of living with fear, under a repressive regime.
It is the quintessential “there but for the grace of God go I” book.
Oh fuck. Now I’ve gone and mentioned God. That’s another touchy subject this time of year. Because if a book isn’t being banned for pornographic reasons, it’s usually somehow either too religious—like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books—or not religious enough—like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Or you get something really tricky like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time that manages to—variously and allegedly—promote witchcraft, be too Christian, and also bother some religious conservatives with the sci-fi aspect.
Goodness. What nasty books, putting ideas like kindness, questioning authority, and exploring the world into the minds of readers!
I don’t like to argue, but I love to question answers far more than answer questions. I like knowing why the books were challenged. One of the reasons that both Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye have been found questionable is because of their derogatory statements about and portrayals of women. Certainly, that evidence is there in both those books (and a lot of others.) But less so, I think, than the unsubtle misogyny in an average twenty minutes of television. Besides, what either of those books offer is worth far more—to me—than whatever offense they also give.
Life, as we all know, is messy and all the unknowns are hugely frightening. I suppose I understand the sort of fear and hunger to protect children from all the mess that drives people—mostly parents—to challenge books in school districts and public libraries. However, removing Anne Frank from seventh-grade curriculums will not stop puberty from happening to all those kids. Banning books that dance even lightly around homosexuality will not stop people from living “alternative lifestyles,” as the Merrimack, NH school district termed it when banning Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1996. Keeping Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Maya Angelou, Jean Craighead George, Alice Walker, and Sherman Alexie off bookshelves will not eradicate racism, sexual violence, or classism. Jay Asher and John Green do not cause or glamorize teenage suicide or substance abuse in their books—I think they just deal honesty with the realities of being a teenager, which is pretty fraught and shitty at times, and for many does involve death, sex, and illicit substances. Getting rid of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series will do nothing to curb the tide of elementary school potty humor.
Books are, like dreams, artifacts and articulations of our past and our present. They are not prophesies of the future. If, in reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, people are disturbed by the repressive violence of the Iranian Revolution, I believe the answer is to educate more, act on and work for peace, justice and freedom, not ban the book as the Chicago Public Schools did in 2013. We need to stop shooting these wordy messengers, and look at the lives we lead outside the pages.
We cannot pretend that the pieces of life we do not like and do not agree with are nonexistent. We will not change the world for the better by remaining still and silent, by banning books that make us ethically uncomfortable. Ask Anne Frank what happens when the world remains still and silent, when censorship is accepted and freedom of expression ignored. We change by learning to ask questions, to expand perspectives, to juggle truths. Nothing is as powerful as the truth.
And, in that, nothing is more subversive and revolutionary.