Celebrating the freedom to read
By Virginia Roberts
Rhinelander District Library Director
This past week, September 27- October 3, has been the American Library Association official celebration of Banned Books. Not as much a celebration as in recognition of what intellectual freedom, censorship, and freedom to read mean.
Now, I am certain it won’t be much of a surprise to admit I read banned books. I have been reading them for decades—starting with Dr. Seuss and ending with some stuff I’m absolutely sure you’ve not really heard of—mostly graphic novels (comic books) like Saga, and Persepolis. I have even let my children read them. I bet you’ve read more than a few of them as well—Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury? Maybe you were assigned To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee along with every ninth grader since the book was released. Do you belong to a book club? Perhaps you read the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison when it became Oprah’s book of the Month? I could keep going, and going, and going.
Here’s the thing, I didn’t ban these books. The Libraries I have worked at didn’t ban them. But they were banned or challenged somewhere for some reason, frequently only to prevent others from reading them, enjoying the stories, and drawing their own conclusions.
My children can pretty much select any reading material they want. They also know their parents well enough to ask if a book is something they would like. Here’s a time I said no…no, not yet, not now. And what happened.
When my youngest was much younger—oh, about the fifth grade, one of her not too much older friends was reading a book I had read as a young teen, probably seventh grade. It was a book, popular even now, marketed as horror—but contained graphic descriptions of child abuse and abandonment of the worst sort as well as incest, pedophilia, and unspeakable violence against generations of children within the same family. It was a book that haunted my mind, even as an adult, and I was not going to let youngest read it—and no amount of “but so and so gets to” was going to allow it. I calmly explained having never said no to a book choice before, the other parents had allowed it and I would not—because I had read the book, and I knew it would give her nightmares of the worst sort. And if, when she was older, she still wanted to read it, then we would talk, and chances are she could. I have in fact asked, and the answer from her now is, well, no thank you. (I suspect she’s since read about it, because of recent screen adaptations, but quickly saw what I had meant.) And that is her decision.
Ultimately if someone doesn’t like the content of the book—by all means, I would hope they let me know about it. They do not need recommend it to anyone. But we’re all adults here, and I will let people choose materials for themselves. If you are a parent, and concerned, help your children make selections—be involved in what your older children are interested in reading, watching, playing, and doing—if you like. The public library is here for everyone, and contains all kinds of materials and information. Banning an item does not keep others from reading or seeing it. It just makes it a little more difficult. People will seek out that which may be forbidden…and they might even agree with those who challenge the material…but they’ll read it first.