At book events, I’m often asked whether my debut novel, “Flood,” is appropriate for young readers. The story parallels Mark Twain’s exodus from our shared hometown, Hannibal, Mo., and the characters are modern-day Tom Sawyers and Becky Thatchers — except grown up and wrestling with issues of race, class and rural identity.
I suspect what my dear readers are really asking is, “Does your book have sex?” It does. It would be difficult to write a coming-of-age tale authentically without adult situations. The sex is subtle, though, implied rather than graphic. “My 10-year-old read it and loved it,” I say to these parents. “My 15-year-old found it tame.” I also tell them that allowing my children to read drafts of “Flood” prompted discussions about difficult topics, such as poverty and slavery, that we might not have addressed otherwise.
But even if my novel had been written by someone else, I would have let my kids read it. I’ve never censored their reading. I’d rather watch them stumble in their own reading discoveries than limit their exposure, and I trust that the safest place for them to stretch their experiences is on the page.
As both a parent and a teacher of middle school, high school and college students, I’ve found that reading begins more discussion than it ends. Reading about experiences different from our own encourages us to travel with our minds, and as Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” Twain knew well the loss when work is censored. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” published in 1885, is one of the most frequently challenged books in our country. The language of the novel, especially his treatment of class and race, is difficult to digest by our modern standards. But if we dismiss “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for its imperfections, we miss the opportunity to learn from Twain’s humanitarianism, which is larger than his book’s pitfalls.
Though I don’t restrict the works my daughters read, I don’t leave them entirely on their own. I might scan their selections as we check out of the library. And I often read along with them. This allows me simply to be present — to help with unknown words, to appreciate lovely language, to explain a scene, to answer questions about the text, even when I stumble over a theme I’m not sure my parenting skills are prepared for. Other times I’ll read in tandem with them or research the books they’ve chosen, so I know what issues they might encounter. When my oldest daughter read Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” out loud to her sister, I joined them, knowing that a book about coming of age in 1970 might present a dated perspective.
I worried more about “The Hunger Games” series because of the violence but thought the issues of class and gender made it worth reading. The three of us read them in tandem, but we conveniently never found time to watch the movies.
I hesitated when my oldest daughter put “Born a Crime,” the memoir by biracial late-night host Trevor Noah, who grew up under apartheid in South Africa, on her holiday wish list. But we read it together and found the humor he used in his writing made the damaged world he describes more relatable.
Last summer, we read Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give,” a story about an unarmed black teenager killed by police. After hearing that some school districts in Missouri and Texas challenged the book, a parent at our bus stop asked if I was concerned about the violence or language. I told him I’d rather my kids read about racial profiling through an honest, intelligent narrator than see it on the nightly news. Instead of censoring books, the American Library Association advocates “intellectual freedom” where readers are exposed to and may explore “information from all points of view without restriction.” I was much more offended by the police violence revealed in “The Hate U Give” than by a sprinkling of profanity. My kids might hear worse language on the bus ride to school and would certainly be exposed to more aggression through the popular gun-based combat game Fortnite.
During the decade I taught middle school and high school, the concerns I often received from parents about reading assignments assumed that children need our protection, that they can’t manage difficult material, and that complexity or depth of theme might turn them off reading. In my experience, I’ve found the exact opposite. My students are often more mature than their parents realize and they can navigate nuances and engage in critical conversations with open, unformed opinions. Literature should unsettle us, and I don’t expect my students to have all the answers to the questions an author raises, but I do insist they think critically as they form their own arguments. Books that are banned are often the ones that have shaped America the most. It’s true that “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Native Son,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Jungle,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Fahrenheit 451” are classics, but they may fail to meet “acceptable” public school standards in some jurisdictions. One way I’ve tried to address the shortcomings of a worthy work is to pair it with a modern essay. Having my students also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s discussion of the ownership of words or Rebecca Solnit’s commentary on activism or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s feminist essays invites more voices into my classroom and gives my students more room to forward their own thoughts, even as they are still developing.
Now that I’m a college professor, I can spot the free-range readers in my classroom. They read texts holistically and can imagine the authors in a modern conversation. They bring experiences from their wide reading to our discussions and they feel empowered to push back, even against their professor. Once a student preempted a conversation about the “Narrative of the Life Frederick Douglass” by requesting that if the occasion arose, we not use the n-word out loud. Though I insisted our conversations not be censored, either, we discussed why Douglass elevates his own language above the vulgarity of his slave master. I also assured her it was fine to disagree with my assessment and still respect my authority in our classroom. As a free-range reader, her mind was developed enough to hold both thoughts, and her query led to a larger discussion of the power we yield if we accept limits to our intellectual investigations, especially on college campuses. Douglass said, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
There is one condition, however, under which I think parents might consider censoring a child’s reading: if you want to pique their interest. Twain advised children to “always obey your parents when they are present.” Go ahead and forbid a book and see how quickly they renew their own library card.
Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novel “Flood.” Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, Narrative and Ploughshares. She teaches at American University in Washington. Find her at melissascholesyoung.com and @mscholesyoung.