Well, it’s Banned Books Week again in America. It’s a curious phenomenon – adults refusing to allow young people to read. But it happens all the time. And many of the books that adults try to ban are simultaneously judged to be classics – Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley… even Eric Carle’s masterpiece The Hungry Caterpillar has run into trouble!
Joining this impressive list in 2012, the top ten of most frequently “challenged” books included Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (perhaps unsurprisingly!), The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and Beloved by Toni Morrison (yet again).
As a librarian and bibliofiend I find the whole concept of stopping children reading utterly bizarre and totally pointless. I suppose it’s all about control – trying to meld young minds into a particular world view that wide reading simply explodes. I passionately believe that young people have the right to read.
In literary criticism, reader-response theory argues that the act of reading is active, not passive; that the reader themselves constructs the meaning of a text based upon their own experience, understanding and psychology, and that this interpretation of a text can change over time. The text itself is a catalyst for a unique individual experience rather than an end in itself, and there is no “right” way to experience a text. I feel that this is particularly true of young readers who have a very different experience of the world than adults. They often apply different meanings and have different reactions to a text than an adult may, due to less reading and life experience and less awareness of the wider world and the complex interrelations and contexts of the “adult” world. So, should we be navigating this burgeoning awareness for them? It’s a tempting and laudable aim, but I think it’s dangerous territory. It’s too easy to unconsciously impose our own viewpoints at this critical stage and to make value judgements about what young people read, and by extension, about young people themselves. Conversely, encouraging independence in reading is demonstrating trust and facilitating openness. If a young person is affected by what they’ve read, then talk to them about it, address their worries and help them put content into context.
As young people approach adulthood they are curious about the world and need a safe environment in which to vicariously experience different aspects of life. Often, reading about “stressful” things can act as catharsis, enabling them to experience and express their worries about all kinds of issues that may be affecting them. Fiction in particular is a uniquely safe forum in which they can explore the world and start to formulate their responses. Dave Pelzer may or may not have written a true story but the popularity of A Child Called It amongst young people speaks for itself. Teenagers want to understand things that they’re worried about.
No teenager, having read Junk by Melvin Burgess, will think that taking drugs is a good idea – but neither will they feel “preached at” or patronised. This book treats them as an individual, an adult, and subtly encourages them to think about the reality of drug-taking. In relation to sex, young people are far more prudish than we might imagine! If they encounter sex scenes in a novel they are more likely to skip them than an adult reader would, or simply not understand the content. And if they enjoy them – of course that’s fine, they’re young adults dealing with a growing awareness of sexuality. How many of us, as teenagers, secretly read our parents’ books, looking for naughty bits?!
It‘s all about context, of course. We often cite context as a reason for censoring a book, but forget that context is often an adult perception. Of course we want to protect our young people from some things – but the reality is that we can’t. All we can do is give them knowledge and the skills to negotiate life’s sometimes difficult path for themselves. As adults we understand the world holistically; we’re more aware of the bigger picture. For example, I can’t watch films or read books which include torture – because as a member of Amnesty International I know that these things are very real. But that’s my response, learnt from my life experience and part of my unique psychology. Other people will have a different response and if I impose my own view upon them, that is unfair. As much as we resist the imposition of other adults’ views on our territory (e.g. a parent complaining about a book on religious grounds), we need to recognise when it’s our issues that are too much at the forefront, too. Even if they are well-meaning, they can still cause damage. I’ve read books that have upset me – but I don’t regret reading them. They’ve enabled me to understand the world more and they’ve become part of me as much as the books I’ve loved.
Find out more about Banned Books Week at http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned.