The banning of books has gained a lot of notoriety recently. The image that pops into most people’s mind is a scene from Fahrenheit 451 in which books are torched in a flaming show of destruction. This has occurred in the past in some countries. One of my favorite books was banned in the Soviet Union, and smuggled out into the rest of the world, The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But, now if a book is pulled from a school or library it is just sold elsewhere.
It’s crucial to know if books are actually banned in the United States, now. Many of the titles in the lists of “banned books” online are not actually banned, but have been challenged. People have requested the book to be removed from a local school or library. It only becomes banned if they are successful in this request, and usually the book is only removed from a specific location, such as one school or one public library. People in the US do not have the power to remove the book everywhere the country. Even the Anarchist Cookbook with instructions used to make explosives in the Oklahoma City bombing is available online. Think about this logically. If we didn’t have access to these books elsewhere, few people would know that they even existed.
Today, states and cities do have obscenity statues to prevent the distribution of pornography particularly the kind dealing with children. The request to ban a book is almost always made because of sexual and/or violent content; often because it is assumed to be unsuitable for children. The majority of people challenging books are parents of school aged children. I learned this because I tried to do it once. I had no desire to get a book removed from all places within the United States. (That’s just not possible.) But, I did request that it be removed from the curriculum in the 6th grade classes at the school where my child attended. It didn’t even have to be removed from the elementary school library. I didn’t fear children picking it up and reading it for their enjoyment because most of them were frustrated having to read the book in class. It was the ancient Greek classic called The Iliad.
I didn’t realize they were reading the entire story until one of the other parents talked to me about trying to explain the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Exactly does one explain to an 11-year-old why two Greek heroes were fighting over the possession of a war trophy concubine named Briseis? Children that age generally don’t even know what a concubine is. I know because I was working in another 6th grade class when a student asked me. Explaining the purpose of a sex slave is the kind of question that teachers don’t want to answer.
So, I asked my own questions, such as who decided that the sixth graders were going to read The Iliad. The person was a new reading curriculum coordinator who assumed that early exposure to the classics would make it easier for the children to read them later on. Therefore, I wrote a letter explaining why the Iliad was inappropriate for sixth grade and should be removed from the curriculum. All I got was the ability to replace it with something else for my own child. I talked to other parents, hoping that some of them would catch on to the problem. Most played it safe, and didn’t get involved. However, I did earn something of a reputation. When my child moved up to junior high school, one of the language arts teachers would send home books for us to read together to determine if they were suitable for the regular classes.
The young curriculum coordinator got to do things her way for a time, and the result was not what she probably envisioned. By the time my children were in high school, there had been so many complaints about the students not comprehending the classics, that many of their novels were now modern and some best sellers, even in the gifted classes. Front loading the curriculum with early exposure to difficult literary works resulted in students abandoning them later on. When it came time for the AP Literature test the high school scores were dismally low.
We need to be aware of what is assigned in school and available for our children. Then, we need to be willing to talk to the people making those decisions. They are not always aware of why exposure to books not suitable for a child’s age may actually prevent children from becoming better readers.