Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Free Speech Matters to Me

What a treat to run across this video that features several of my favorite authors of young adult literature (and several more who have been added to my TBR list) talking about why free speech matters.  All of these authors have had books challenged and/or banned.  Highlights of the video (for me) include Jacqueline Woodson's comment about teaching kids to write well before encouraging them to try to  silence others, John Green getting bleeped, Heather Brewer's librarian story, and Lev Grossman and Nina LaCour talking about our need to confront ideas that are difficult or that we disagree with.  And my hero, Chris Crutcher.  ALL of his books have been banned somewhere.

As an avid reader and teacher, I am passionate about the power of books to open up whole new worlds.  

When I was a kid, my mom took me to the library every few weeks and I would check out a huge pile of books.  She was sometimes skeptical about my ability to read so many books, but never once stopped me from reading something that caught my interest.  Back in the dark ages when I was a teenager, there wasn't the huge selection of YA literature that there is today.  Even as an elementary and middle school student, I read mainly adult fiction; children's books were too easy and there weren't many other choices.

My first experience with censorship involved Forever by Judy Blume when I was in the sixth grade.  I remember hearing that this book I had never heard of was banned at my middle school.  Anyone caught with it would be in SERIOUS TROUBLE.  I was a good student, a teacher's pet kind of kid, and a voracious reader.  The idea that someone could stop me from reading anything I wanted to read was a huge shock.  The ban awoke a little passive-aggressive monster in me and I immediately went to the public library, checked out the offending book, covered it in brown paper from a grocery store bag...and took it to school.  I read that book cover to cover in a few hours, and then read it again, giggling with my friends over the "good parts."

One could argue that, at 11 years old, I was too young for that particular book.  Perhaps I was.  But I read it and I survived.  Giggling about "Ralph" did not make me sexually active.  I didn't start smoking or doing drugs.  I continued to be (mostly) respectful to my parents and teachers.  I still cared about my grades.  At the time, I found the book more funny and gross than titillating.  Had it not for the school-wide ban, I doubt I would have even picked up Forever.  At that time, I was much more interested in fantasy (thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien for being awesome).  Thanks to the book banners, I discovered a wonderful book that might otherwise have escaped my notice and developed a lifelong fascination with books and authors who aren't afraid to tackle controversial topics.

A few years later, in ninth grade, I ran across a copy of The French Lieutenant's Woman in my school library.  I tried to check it out and the librarian wouldn't let me have it.  I was floored.  Then I went home and saw the book on our bookshelf at home.  So, of course I took it to school and showed it to my friends.  I was quite a little snot about it, smack-talking about the situation, when my friends suddenly got very quiet.   I turned around, only to find myself face to face with the evil librarian.  I looked her right in the eye and said, "Luckily, my mom had this at home, so I can read it anyway."  It was out of character for me, but I took that act of censorship as a personal offense.  I did apologize to the librarian later, but I found it unfair that she was not asked to apologize to me.   

People who want to protect their children from ideas in books may be well-meaning, but in the long-run, they do much more harm than good.  Sooner or later, children grow up and are expected to navigate through a world that is often brutal and cruel and filled with difficult choices.  If we never allow our children to explore difficult or uncomfortable ideas in books, we seriously impair their ability to make good choices about their own lives.  How can our children be expected to make mature decisions when they can't even be trusted to make choices about what to read?  Keeping your own child from reading a particular book is one thing, but banning a book and taking that choice away from EVERYONE'S children is simply wrong.   

Especially in our internet saturated world, where we can find anything, from porn to dirty bomb recipes, censoring books seems kind of pointless.  Instead of trying to take books off of library shelves and out of our children's hands, we should be encouraging them to read as much as they can, and then having open and honest conversations with them.  This is how they will clarify their own ideas about the world and the kind of adults they aspire to be.  This is how they learn to think critically and to make the decisions that they will be called upon to make when they are in charge of running the world, when THEY are responsible for US.

"This is America.  We have the freedom to read here.  We have the freedom to think here....Freedom of speech matters to me.  And it should matter to you, too." --Laurie Halse Anderson

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