I should start this post off by stating that many of my favourite books have been banned at one point or another. Examples include 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Kite Runner; all books that, according to the internet, have been banned at some point. Most importantly to me, as a Christian, I value the freedom to read the Bible without fear of recrimination, something which is absolutely not shared across the globe. We should have freedom of the press, freedom to read whatever we choose. The books listed above are not chosen at random; all of them are books that have shown me something extremely important about myself and/or other people that would have taken years of life experience to learn otherwise. Perhaps, as a follow-up to this post, I will write about things that I’ve learnt from reading the novels listed above and other banned books.
However, I worry that something is lost when we fail to differentiate between books that are banned from public libraries, censored before or after publication, or withdrawn from general circulation, and books that are banned from school libraries or withdrawn from the curriculum. This is quite a difficult post to write, because I know that it’s not a popular opinion (especially among the book blogger community), and I realise that a lot of people who share my opinion on this are far-right conservatives whose political and social beliefs I find generally abhorrent. Despite that, I still think that schools should retain the right not to stock particular books in their libraries, and the right not to teach certain books, or to restrict them to older classes.
In much the same way that I am generally in favour of age restrictions on certain films and video games, I don’t think that all written content is appropriate for all ages. Childhood is short and precious and fragile, and I don’t feel comfortable advocating to make it even shorter. Although I believe that it’s important to start talking about subjects like racism and sexism with children early on, I also believe that it’s entirely possible to make the content age-appropriate. For example, a group of twelve-year-olds reading To Kill A Mockingbird in school is a vastly better idea than one solitary twelve-year-old stumbling across The Long Song in their school library and plunging in head-first. Both deal with racism and sexual assault, but The Long Song opens with a black woman (a female slave) being raped, and contains multiple other scenes of graphic racial and sexual violence. In To Kill A Mockingbird, there is a scene in which a white woman attempts to sexually assault a black man, but it happens off-page (as it were), and the descriptions are not graphic. Although I disagreed with aspects of the narrative of both books (the former book has the whole pretty gross “white saviour” thing going on, and the latter fails to portray any character with the remotest degree of humanity, which are opposite sides of the same coin when it comes to simplifying problems), both also have a lot of merits.
This is the thing. I am not saying that The Long Song should be banned, or withdrawn from public libraries, or censored. Of course not. I picked it up at my local library, and I’m very glad that I read it. A suggestion by the narrator at the end that the worst parts of the story have not even been told, that even the horrors depicted have been modified to be more palatable to white eyes, highlights the way in which history has often been told both from and for the benefit of a white perspective. It points out that the way we are biased towards particular voices hasn’t changed as much as we like to think. It’s a really useful book. It’s just that it’s not particularly suitable for a child. Of course, at home, that’s a matter for parents to decide, but schools are in loco parentis and they also have difficult decisions to make about what kind of content to expose children to. A child can start by reading To Kill A Mockingbird and then move onto something grittier when they are older.
Similarly, every child is different when it comes to sensitivity to certain subject matters. That makes it almost impossibly difficult to set a curriculum which takes into account everybody’s needs. I speak, here, from the perspective of having inevitably been that one child in the class with an overactive imagination and a capacity for impressive nightmares. When I was in either the first or second year of secondary school (so between 11 and 13 years old), we read Dracula in English. I can still remember the nightmares. Lots of them. Very vivid ones. Even in adulthood, I don’t deal at all well with horror content, and avoid it as far as is in my power. The only horror films I’ve watched are Sweeney Todd and Ghost Rider (both fairly mild, as it goes; both watched to impress a boy; both regretted subsequently). There are a handful of children like me in every group (and yes, a 13-year-old is legally and psychologically still effectively a child).
Of course, the fact that there are some children in the class who will react negatively to a book doesn’t automatically mean that it shouldn’t be taught, but perhaps parents should have the right to contest the inclusion of a book that is really upsetting their child. Short of having one class for all the wimpy kids and one for all the others, a degree of sensitivity when setting the class reading is perhaps required. It’s not fair to traumatise those of us who are more easily upset, but it’s also not kind to rob the other children of reading opportunities unnecessarily. This is one of those occasions where parents expressing their opinions and exercising their right to challenge certain books is helpful. I know this often leads to books being withdrawn for racist and homophobic reasons, but that is where the integrity and professional judgement of the school comes into play.
I read somewhere (I know, citation needed, but it was a long time ago and I can’t remember the name of the book) that a novel was withdrawn from a curriculum because frequent use of the n-word by racist characters, regardless of context, had proven very upsetting for the pupils of colour who had already heard it countless times as a hate-filled slur and were understandably struggling to separate the fictional experience from their own real life experiences. The school defended their decision by saying that although teaching the novel had proven helpful at showing their white pupils how vile racism is, black students were being traumatised by the experience. I don’t think a book withdrawn for such well-thought-out reasons should be regarded as having been “banned”.
In short, I support (unconditionally) the right of adults to read whatever they want, and am in favour of gradually introducing more difficult subjects to children through books and discussion. I am also (conditionally) in favour of teachers setting their own reading material, as long as they do it sensitively. If you’ve read all the way through this long post, I’m very grateful! Please let me know what you think about this quite complicated subject in the comments 🙂