An Author and Bookseller’s Perspective on Banned and Challenged Books

This week, David Goldenberg wrote a piece on the FiveThirtyEight blog about the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books. I’m a writer married to a bookseller, so you can imagine the kinds of discussions that an article like this stirs up around our dinner table! My husband responded with this post about why our bookstore doesn’t celebrate Banned Books Week, and a second post on what a banned book really is. (warning: it’s disturbing.)

The topic flared up again at breakfast when we read about a doughnut shop partnering with Random House to give out free copies of The Kite Runner in response to that book being challenged by a parent who questioned whether it was appropriate for a 10th grade classroom.

It’s been a while since I’ve read The Kite Runner. I know that it’s an extraordinary, amazing book that everyone should read. I also remember a pretty brutal rape scene that I couldn’t get through.

That’s no reason not to read it, and it’s no reason to pull it off the shelves. But surely there’s a valid, reasonable conversation to be had about age-appropriateness, right? I don’t have kids, but if I did, I’m sure I would have my own ideas about when my kids should be required to read a rape scene so painful that I, as the hypothetical mother, couldn’t get through it.

I probably would want them to read it at some point. I just can’t say for certain what that age might be, and I don’t find it at all upsetting that a parent is asking that question. After all, surely a parent expressing an opinion about a child’s schoolwork is owed the same freedom of speech protection as the book under question.

What I’m getting at is: Should a parent or community member be labeled a book banner (or a book “challenger”) just for raising the issue? I mean, the books are in no danger. These banned and challenged books are widely available everywhere books are sold. We can all rest easy about that. (again, go here to read about what an actual banned book looks like. You won’t like it, you won’t want to celebrate it, and you won’t want to defend it.)

Some of these challenges are easier to understand than others. For instance, I can certainly understand why a parent might question the age-appropriateness of a book with explicit sex and violence. At many of the events I do for Wicked Bugs and Wicked Plants (which were written for adults), I meet science teachers who tell me that they love to use those books in the classroom. When I ask them what grade they teach, I’m often surprised to hear how young the kids are. Are fourth-graders really reading my chapters on pot, cocaine, and opium in Wicked Plants? Wouldn’t it be weird for a kid to read my description in Wicked Bugs of the African bat bug’s “traumatic insemination,” in which the male pierces the female’s abdomen with his “horribly sharp little penis”?

I thought it was funny line, but there’s an age cutoff for insect -related sex jokes, right?

As an author of books written entirely for adults, I would be completely, perfectly, 100% okay with a parent deciding that their kids are too young to read my books. I’d be perfectly fine with them having a conversation about that with the school. (In the case of the Wicked books, teachers are using the excerpts that they find appropriate and not sharing the more “adult” sections with the kids.) I would not mock them for raising the question, and I would not try to rally the public against them. Let them have their say.

Now, some of these challenges are made for ideological reasons that I oppose. I would not like to see a book removed from the school library or curriculum just because it accurately describes the horrors of slavery, or explains a scientific fact like evolution, or celebrates LGBT relationships. Lots of parents would like to see books taken off the shelves for those reasons. I disagree. Lots of people disagree, and I’d expect to see them down at the school board meeting too, voicing their objections to the objections.

But since when do I get to decide whether someone’s “challenge” is valid? One of my books (The Earth Moved, about earthworms) talks quite a bit about Darwin. I suppose there are parents who would like every mention of Darwin stricken from the curriculum. I don’t agree with them, and in fact, I think my book does a nice job of describing the reconciliation between Darwin and the church that happened around the time of his death. Religious leaders at that time set aside any objections to his theories, and I think it’s useful for all of us to look back at that piece of history and ask what has changed.

Instead of publicly shaming parents for raising these questions (even when that shaming comes with a delicious doughnut), I’d much rather have a free and open discussion in which even the evolution deniers get to have their say.  Let’s celebrate the fact that these conversations are happening! If people are gathering together at schools, libraries, and school board meetings to talk about books and education, and to express their deeply-held beliefs about the power of the written word, and to hold a vigorous debate, that’s a world I want to live in.

I’ll even bring the doughnuts.



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