Thoughts on Banned Books

Dear Readers,

I’ve been away for a while and that is truly disgusting. I hope to never do this ever again….until another massive load hits the fan and I’m working on a freelance gig that takes up my time and energy (hint, hint…click the “Hire Me” tab above to…well…hire me…to write stuff). Here’s a picture of a couple of kittens to ease the mental anguish I am so sure I’ve caused you:

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The fact of the matter is, I’ve been kind of avoiding this platform, not because I have to, but because there is so much out there in the world of culture, literature, and entertainment to write about that I have had trouble deciding which to talk about. Do I open my mouth to weigh in on the shooting of Michael Brown? Do I comment on the recent string of football players who can’t seem to keep their ‘roid rage in check? Do I comment on Sam Pepper and the fact that Youtubers aren’t big enough stars to abuse power in this way? Do I talk about ISIS? Or do I ignore the media shit storm surrounding all of this and stick to what I know best: books?

All of these are decent enough topics and all are topics that are difficult for me to talk about, not due to some level of discomfort on my part (talking about gender and race are my two favorite things!), but because they make me so angry sometimes, I can’t keep a level head about it. And, that’s the last thing this world needs: another angry voice filling the void with rants about race, gender, violence, and the systemic privilege of the white, heterosexual, male “majority” in power. In truth, I’m not even sure if I will change anything or say what has yet to be said. I like to think I bring a certain level of balance to social discussion, sitting on my “educated” pedestal, degree hanging on the wall that says I at least cracked the spines of enough books to talk about “this.” However, I get angry just like the rest of the world, and I find myself trying to negotiate the angry idealism that was issued with my bachelor’s degree and my almost-adult perspective that anger and censure will not solve anything. So, I keep quiet.

That is, until today. As a once committed teacher of English literature and private literacy coach and tutor, as well as an eternal book worm, I was saddened when I saw a news item from the Los Angeles Times about the recent events in Riverside, California (not too far away from me, and a school district I had considered teaching in once…). Apparently, there’s this book that has taken the Young Adult Fiction sub-genre by storm. A little firecracker in literary heaven, called The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I became aware of it last year as a substitute teacher. Every so often, I would work in a classroom where, inevitably, the smart girls in the class would come talk to me during passing period about The Fault in Our Stars and how good it is and how I should read it. I would always make a casual reference to the Blog Brothers, smile, and take their recommendation into consideration, while the literary snob in me would cringe a little at the thought of reading a Young Adult book, much less a popular Young Adult book. Still, I was grateful that I would never hear Twilight mentioned again and that maybe the fad behind that tome had lost its momentum and that I was finally free of the fervor.

Furthermore, it warmed my heart just a little to hear young people talk about loving a book of quality that much and feeling like they could get something out of what they read and learn and grow with the plot and characters. This is why it saddened me to hear that a school district in Riverside, California has banned The Fault in Our Stars from its middle schools and refused to accept donations of the book, should it ever be offered. According to the piece in the LA Times, the school district’s Book Reconsideration Committee decided to remove the book after a number of parents complained that “the book contains profanity and references to sex” (Michael Schaub, “John Green’s ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ Banned in Riverside”).

Whether you liked The Fault in Our Stars or didn’t, or haven’t even read it, like I have, it’s important to recognize the key issue: banning books is wrong. Here are some of my thoughts upon hearing the news from Riverside this morning:

1. This is a dangerous maneuver for a school district committee to make. I can’t tell you how many times I hear teenagers complain about how they “hate reading” and “aren’t good at it.” Ask any literacy specialist worth their salt, and they will tell you: it takes finding a book that a student is actually interested in for them to turn around where reading is concerned. And, studies show, more reading = higher grades, higher achievement, higher test scores. Reading helps develop a sense of empathy in us and expands our experiences to include other perspectives, other cultures, other ideas that we would have never thought of before. Reading, as it turns out, makes us smarter. Why would an educational institution even consider limiting access to quality literature? These kids are gobbling this shit up, and I’m happy about it, why can’t the school district be happy about it? If these kids are actually enjoying reading, why stop that?

2. This is a dangerous maneuver to make in the grand social macrocosm, as well. Why, in the hell, would you seriously give in to a select group of very vocal people, especially when it comes to censoring culture in this way? If these parents take issue with the book, then it’s their responsibility to make sure the book doesn’t get into their own kids hands. This is not the school’s responsibility. Meanwhile, every other student is deprived this resource.

3. This doesn’t mean these kids will never see this book and will never read it. My mom grew up in a time when the cause celeb was banning Catcher in the Rye (ironically, required reading when I was in high school). This didn’t mean my mom or her classmates never picked the book up. They had ways of getting around the ban and everyone still managed to get their hands on a copy. She said that the public library became a popular hang out because everyone would want to rent a study space and share the one copy of Catcher in the Rye the library had in stock. Once more, they did this because the book was banned. Removing it from schools was only effective in making the kids want to read it more. Only now, they were skirting the rules and (in many cases) disobeying their parents.

It seems to me, that the problem with this country is literacy. We have issues with race and gender and violence because we aren’t given the opportunity to explore other perspectives through reading. We are not an emotionally balanced society, we do not have the necessary cognitive skills taught through reading regularly, and we are not educated nor are we informed. If that was the case, we would be less ignorant and actually begin to function as a country.

That said, here’s my favorite clip of the week:

Until next time,

BKJ

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