The American Library Association launched Banned Books Week in 1982 to celebrate the freedom to read. Libraries, bookstores, publishers and teachers across the country use the week — this year it’s Sept. 22-28 — to highlight great books that people have banned and to spark a discussion about censorship. At Common Sense Media, we think reading banned books offers families a chance to celebrate reading and promotes open access to ideas, both of which are keys to raising a lifelong reader.
Why do people ban books? Often it’s for religious or political reasons: An idea, a scene or a character in the book offends their religion, sense of morality or political view. Some folks feel they need to protect children from the cursing, morally offensive behavior or racially insensitive language in a book. Or they think a book’s content is too violent or too sexual.
The Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” has been banned for its graphic depictions of war. The edgy teen bestseller “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” has been banned for its descriptions of sexual behavior and alcohol and drug use. Profanity and an explicit scene featuring oral sex got “Looking for Alaska” on a banned list.
Who is challenging these books? Parents, school board members, individuals, groups — yet what’s considered offensive may depend on the era or specific community. As the ALA argues, these challenges pose a threat to freedom of speech and choice — freedoms Americans hold dear and are worth standing up for.
Here are five good reasons for kids to read banned books:
Today’s edgy is tomorrow’s classic. Original work pushes boundaries in topic, theme, plot and structure. What’s shocking today may be assigned in English class five or 10 years from now if it has true literary merit. “The Great Gatsby” is a high school staple today, but it was shocking when its gin-soaked pages were published in 1925.
There’s more to a book than the swear words in it. Many books have been banned for language that your kid has encountered before or will encounter soon. Even potty humor (like in “Captain Underpants”) has caused people to call for a ban. A character’s language may add realism to the story, or it may seem gratuitous or distracting — your kids can make their own judgments.
Kids crave relatable books. Banned books often deal with subjects that are realistic, timely and topical. Young people may find a character going through exactly what they are, which makes it a powerful reading experience and helps the reader sort out thorny issues such as grief, divorce, sexual assault, bullying, prejudice and sexual identity. The compelling teen rebels story “The Outsiders” has been banned, yet many middle-schoolers cite it as the book that turned them into readers.
Controversial books are a type of virtual reality. Exploring complex topics such as sexuality, violence, substance abuse, suicide and racism through well-drawn characters lets kids contemplate morality and vast aspects of the human condition, build empathy for people unlike themselves and possibly discover a mirror of their own experience. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” is an eye-opening story of an African American family facing racism in 1930s Mississippi, yet it has been banned for having racial slurs.
They’ll kick off a conversation. What did people find so disturbing in a book that they wanted to ban it, and to what extent was it a product of its time or did it defy social norms of its era? For example, the Harry Potter books were banned by people who felt they promoted magic. Reading a challenged book is a learning experience and can help your kids define their own values and opinions of its content.
This piece first ran at Common Sense Media. Regan McMahon is deputy editor for books at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that aims to help kids and parents navigate the world of media and technology.