A Banned Books Week Primer
On paper, I seem like the least likely candidate to advocate for Banned Books Week. I have a bachelor’s degree in youth ministry from a conservative Christian college and I teach children’s church. Don’t get me wrong, there are books that I have read that have appalled me (although more for just bad writing then for actual content). But some of the very books that have been challenged by others are the very books that have touched me and made a difference in my life. In fact, the biggest turning point in my life came when I was in the 11th grade and read To Kill a Mockingbird. How could you not love Atticus Finch? I get that it deals with some dark and heavy things. But I also get that the world itself is often dark and heavy. I think there is great benefit in slowly learning about the truth of the world in safe environments where you can process the information in your own time in the safety of your home. Although it is truly wrong for us to assume that we know anything about the life of others and the truth is, there are teens living lives more horrific than they could ever read in a book.
Four years ago I lost a baby to miscarriage. It was the most horrific experience I could ever have imagined. To help me crawl out of that dark place, I read every book my library had on the topic of miscarriage – fiction and nonfiction. And when I was through with those I ILLed more. I needed to read the stories of others and know that I was not alone. I needed to know that others felt the pain, the rage, the jealousy and the emptiness that had taken place in the emptiness I now felt inside me. Reading the stories of others helped me slowly crawl my way out of a dark abyss. I want teens who are struggling with abuse, addiction, identity issues, etc. to have the same tools that I did. I want them to be able to read the stories of others and know that they are not alone. I want them to find the strength to get help and change their life in positive ways. I want them to know that there is hope.
And let’s look at the opposite life example: those teens who are growing up in safe and healthy home environments. I am a mother of 2 little girls and I get the need and desire to protect them. But I also know that every day they are getting 1 step closer to going out into this big wide world that no matter how safe I want it to be, the reality is that it often isn’t. I need them to develop an understanding of how people can be and how they should respond. I want them to learn to keep themselves safe. I would rather my daughters learn about abusive boyfriends in a book and know how to spot the signs and get out rather than experience it firsthand when it is too late. Plus, I want them to learn compassion for others. It is a big world, every one’s life is different. I want them to be able to embrace others and be a light in the world. Again, I would rather them do this by taking safe baby steps in the pages of a book then to wait until they are 18 and shove them off an unexpected cliff into the abyss that is the real world.
No one can ever guess the way a story will affect the life of another. In the 6th grade I read It by Stephen King (for the record I was supposed to be reading The Hobbit, which I have still never read – oops). It would be easy for an outsider to say that I shouldn’t be reading that book because it was too scary or too violent. But that book touched me and taught me what true friendship was. It changed the goals I set for myself in that I wanted to be a better friend and have meaningful relationships. I wanted to have people in my life that I could look back into the past with and have shared stories. Other people read It and they just become afraid of clowns, sewers and spiders (and with good reason). My point is this: each book touches us all differently. I can’t predict how you will respond to what you read, I don’t get to decide for you what you can read. And vice versa.
So yes I enthusiastically embrace the idea of Banned Books Week. I stand up and challenge those who would try and censor what others read or have access to. Remember that censorship is more than a parent deciding what is right for their child; censorship is someone trying to say what is right for all children (and adults, too). Intellectual freedom is an important value for us all.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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