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Guest Post: Censorship In Books

Writer Alane Ferguson is a dear friend of mine, and she recently emailed me about an article she’d written. Since I touched on the subject of censorship in my most recent post on sex in YA, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to “reprint” Alane’s piece (which was originally posted on her own blog, here).

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First of all, I believe not all published work is suited to all readers. There, I said it – to me it’s a simple fact. BUT, having said that, we wade into the murky waters of who decides for whom what is and is not appropriate.

So! I will now weigh in. Remember, this is just my take on the question as an author. (Yikes! I hope when I’m done people won’t pelt my house with olives!)

I’ll begin with little back-story. I may have mentioned earlier on my blog that ALL are welcome in my home, and those are not empty words. I have had teenagers (girls, mostly – although boys have landed here, too!) who have moved in when things have gotten rough, which has translated into hundreds of hours negotiating sticky areas between teens and adults. My conclusion? Let me just say that there is A LOT MORE GOING ON in the lives of young adults than many parents might care to acknowledge. Yes, there are some protected teens who have never heard a swear word, but they are, sadly, a small minority. Most teens I’ve encountered have matured beyond their years. (Another fact: I might not like the way they have walked away from their childhoods too soon, but choices are made apart from my pearls of wisdom. I work from what IS, not from what I wish could be). And having said all of that, it is my belief that banning books won’t change behavior, not in the slightest.

I mean, isn’t that the fear? That a child reading about a certain behavior will suddenly indulge in said behavior themselves? I have never personally witnessed anyone renounce their core beliefs because of some random author’s take on life. Quite the contrary. I’ve found reading is the safest way to explore alternative world views. Personally, I welcome a chance to talk about ‘banned’ subjects, not to preach as much as to listen. To probe into the decisions of a fictional character and discuss fictional consequences enlightens everyone involved. How much safer is it to talk about imaginary pregnancy than to face the real thing?

Now comes a caveat: Parents know their kids, so I invariability bow to their choices and wisdom when it comes to their offspring. If they deem my books (which some have) as too graphic (for some readers they are) then by all means, censor my books from your family! It’s not a problem with me – discretionary reading has my blessing. However, and this is where some people get stuck, the idea of honor goes both ways. Those same parents MUST honor the right of the many to read material they themselves may deem ‘unsuitable.’ I believe we must not allow individualistic sanctions to put the kibosh on a teacher’s/classroom’s/librarian’s choice of material. For me, the few should not control the rest! We’re all about freedom, right? (Man, I feel those olives coming my way…)

Last but not least – one thing life has taught me is that it is impossible to please everyone. Let’s not try. To that end, I am a big believer in offering all sorts of books to all kinds of readers – no judgment! I respect their choices…problem solved! Respecting differing points of view is the key.

So! In my humble opinion, let the few choose NOT to read, allow the many to ENJOY, and let the conversations begin!

***

I really like Alane’s thoughts here. I think that — my own personal values, religion and politics aside — my baseline for these issues boils down to choice and truth. There are people who advocate for banning books on principle, of removing the “threat” from shelves for the “benefit” of everyone. And then there are people who advocate for choice — letting parents, educators, and kids choose what they recommend, teach, and read — but at least making all books available.

I get very uncomfortable with people who take it upon themselves to make decisions for others, who have the ego and the righteousness to think that they know better. Sure, some kids lack the life experience that some adults possess, but that doesn’t mean that more life experience is better or more valid. Our shelves should be allowed to reflect the wild diversity of our world: every person who has lived, and read, and thought, has their own truth and worldview. Each book should be allowed to have the same. In the end, it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

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  1. Kate B.’s avatar

    I completely agree with this post. Young adults are such individuals and no one decision about movie viewing, book reading, or TV watching is going to apply to every one of them. Parental involvement is key.

    The part really like is: “I get very uncomfortable with people who take it upon themselves to make decisions for others, who have the ego and the righteousness to think that they know better.”

    That’s my issue with book censorship. One parent can no more decide what’s age appropriate for someone else’s kid than I can! And really, some people ONLY have access to books through libraries. I think that children from homes with limed means suffer most from book restrictions in libraries and schools.

  2. Tami’s avatar

    The censorship issue is one that I feel has been touched on by many an esteemed writer, and I have a crick in my neck from nodding too enthusiastically, so I’ll let that one lie.

    The ‘pelting my house with olives’ bit, on the other hand, deserves further thought. Who throws OLIVES? Those are WAY more expensive than eggs, and so tiny!

    On the other hand, a day or two in the Texas sun, and that tiny olive would be releasing a stench the size of a buick. It’s brilliant. The house owner would know there was SOMETHING there, but olives are so tiny! They’d never find it!

  3. Franziska Green’s avatar

    This is a great way of looking at it, and I totally agree with what she says. The area that makes me squirm is it comes to TV/other media. While I would be happy for my child to read a book about issues such as violence, abuse, I would be extremely uncomfortable letting her watch a programme that featured this kind of behaviour.

    I’m not entirely sure why I would draw this line between moving image and written word, but for me, it’s very important. Hmm, going to have to think about this some more today! Thanks for the post!

  4. Jen’s avatar

    I really like this take on the issue. I love that Alane does mention parents guiding the choices of their own children. Sometimes these days, others view that as so controlling. But I have two very high I.Q. daughters who are capable of reading and understanding more than they are emotionally mature enough to process.

    My oldest is now 14, and she is sensative about what she reads. She will even come to myself or my husband and ask us to read something she is interested in, but unsure of.

    Often, books have great value, though they may deal with some content that is upsetting or difficult. I read almost everything my girls read, so they always have someone with whome they can discuss their feelings about a book. It also is great for bonding. Books are a valuable part of my children’s education and our family bonding.

    I am grateful to all those out there who put themselves into creating great literature for that purpose!

  5. Laura Marcella’s avatar

    Great post! I agree that if you want your kids to avoid reading something in your household, then that’s fine. But one shouldn’t force that decision on others, especially not other people’s children.

  6. Melissa’s avatar

    I appreciate the clarity of Alane’s point that “banning books won’t change behavior, not in the slightest.” When I was a teenager, I broke rules because I was curious what would happen, because I didn’t trust adults, and because I wanted to impress my friends. I (to my parents’ horror) read and watched movies about drugs and sex and pretty much everything else I was told not to do. I was curious about those things before I picked up books about them, and I was still curious after I put the books down. I tried a handful of the unsafe behaviors I read about, but not because the books somehow encouraged me to try them. If the books had any effect on my behavior at all, it was a moderately good one: as long as I was busy curled up with a story, I wasn’t out trying to satisfy my curiosity in any other way.

    Still, I think a lot of people believe that books do change behavior, and that certain books are truly harmful. The personal choice argument makes sense to me, but I doubt it would make sense to people who believed some books could hurt their children. If a parent thinks books about drugs and sex cause kids to do drugs and have sex (at all or unsafely), then it’s natural for that parent to fear the books on the library shelves, in their kids’ friends backpacks, etc. From that perspective, supporting censorship makes at least some sense.

    So how do we convince people that books about unsafe behavior don’t cause unsafe behavior?

  7. Rose de Guzman’s avatar

    While I agree that we should not outright censor and forbid books from being printed or read (except for our own children), I do think it is harder for parents to make those choices than it needs to be.

    When I was a teen, I did not want to read graphic sexual content. However, many books that contain it have no sign that they do, unlike movies, video games, and even manga. While I don’t advocate a rating system for books, I wish there was an easier way than reading content I might not want to be exposed to in order to find out if I want to expose myself to it.

    As for teachers and classrooms, I think they need to be more careful than librarians and booksellers. When the students and their parents do not have a choice about the material, the material should be more tame than, say, the content of book reports where they do have a choice. As someone who was forced, without warning, to watch pornographic material at the college level, I believe that no one should be exposed to material that violates their personal, moral, and/or religious values against their will.

  8. Linda B.’s avatar

    I agree 100% on the banning issue, but I’m not sure I agree with her speculation that the root of parents’ fear has primarily to do with worrying that their kids will emulate what they read.

    I think many are looking for ways to limit kids’ exposure to certain language and content because they feel that language and that content are inherently unhealthy and/or profane.

    Kids are exposed to so much today, and it is very, very difficult to balance the “edgy” in their lives with positive images and ideals. I know many parents who take a conservative approach to raising their kids, and these people feel that society is constantly assaulting their ability to do so. They are not neanderthals who refuse to talk to their teens about sex, drugs, et al. On the contrary, they have remarkably open communications with them. But it is tough to maintain a conservative and/or religious approach with so little reinforcement from society, particularly when mainstream media sources make language and content that fall outside of their values seem so commonplace and acceptable.

  9. Ishta Mercurio’s avatar

    This is a wonderful post. I agree completely with Alane’s stance on banning books, and I appreciate her understanding that not all books are appropriate for all readers. Hers is a very mature outlook!

    Also, just because a book isn’t appropriate for a reader now, doesn’t mean it never will be. I won’t let my 7-year-old read LORD OF THE FLIES or the last few books of HARRY POTTER because he’s too socially immature to even begin to grasp the content. He’s seven! What he does read (ZORGAMAZOO by Robert Paul Weston, MATILDA by Roald Dahl, and THE ODDS GET EVEN by Natale Ghent, to name a few recent titles), I read with him, and we talk about it. But when he’s 13, 14, 15? He’ll absolutely be reading those books, and we’ll be talking about those, too.

  10. Ishta Mercurio’s avatar

    Rose, I find that you had no warning of what material you were going to be watching in College shameful. I took a class in pornography and the law, and we were told upfront that what we would be reading and watching for the purposes of the class had been deemed to be pornographic. All college courses should be this open with the students.

  11. Liesl’s avatar

    Amen.

    I may not be able to keep up with this my entire life, but I try to read everything my children read. If there is something that I don’t agree with, I look at it as an opportunity to talk to my child about something that we might not otherwise have talked about. At the very least, parents can ask their kids what they’re reading, skim the material and try to converse with them about the subject matter.

  12. Rhay’s avatar

    I’ll never forget how angry I was the time when I was around ten and my mom took my newly purchased copy of Go Ask Alice away from me. I’ll also never forget the day when I was fifteen and she gave it back to me. Parents have a responsibility to monitor what their child reads. However, like Alane says that’s the job of particular parents for particular child not people in general to make for every child. Excellent post Alane

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