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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banned Books Week: Or the Children's Crusade

I support the message of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. This is a week celebrating the freedom to read; “it highlights the value of free and open access to information.” That’s a celebration I can get behind. The spirit of this week makes me hopeful for open mindedness in general. But every year all of the talk about the irrationality, the indignity, and the sheer stupidity of banning books gets me thinking about the difference between censorship and guidance.

This year those thoughts took the form of squeamishness over two of our most popular young adult books. With the film versions of Ender’s Game and Catching Fire coming out this fall, these two already bestselling books are flying off the shelves. I’ve read and enjoyed both novels, but I don’t know that I would recommend them to my young cousins. The violence inherent in the subject matter of these two novels (war) definitely has its place. However, I am constantly surprised by how much violence is elaborately described. In Ender’s Game we see our hero straight up murder two children (I’m sure I could have stated that more eloquently, but I think my phrasing expresses my feeling). Catching Fire is the second installment in a series about a warrior heroine sent twice to kill or die in a battle with twenty three of her fellow man. By the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, Katniss’ kill count nears ten total individuals both inside and out of the arena. 

I have been told by countless parents, teachers, and librarians that they do not worry about the amount of violence in young adult literature (or video games and movies for that matter). Violence is so far from the realm of our daily lives that we do not imagine it being an issue for our children. This is worrisome to me. While I would never imagine that someone would bring the actions of Ender Wiggin or Katniss Everdeen into the real world because of what they saw in their stories, I do think reading these stories when we aren’t ready for them does damage. I mean no negativity to these two titles in particular, but to the culture of youth violence as a whole. We should not seek to ban Ender’s Game or Catching Fire, but we need to be having a different sort of conversation around them. We need to be talking about the meaning of the violence, because in neither of these works is the violence gratuitous or meaningless. If we are going to champion books with difficult themes we need to know why we are doing it.

The conversations about these books are more important now than ever especially as the kids reading them today have friends and parents coming home from very real wars and suffering the same traumas as their fictional counterparts. I would never condone the banning of these two books, but I also fervently disagree with ignoring the greater conversation of why people wish them to be banned in the first place. The nerve being struck is not to be ignored, there just may be something there worth thinking about. 

I celebrate Banned Books Week. I support those challenging established ideas, but I urge everyone to think broadly about why books are banned. Take a look at the root, have a conversation about it, and judge the merit for yourself. The glory of Banned Books Week is that you are free both to read what you want to and bypass what you don’t. That’s FREADOM.

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