What do Huck Finn, Jem Finch, and Harry Potter have in common?
They’re three teenage boys in books that have been banned or challenged.
We Americans like to think that censorship happens elsewhere, in regimes that don’t tolerate freedom of expression.
Think again. Attempts to control national reading trace back to the Civil War and continue to present day.
Who are the censors? Anyone with enough clout to be heard. Parents, school boards, editors, publishers, politicians and government officials. Anyone who feels that a particular book threatens their beliefs and lifestyles; anyone who objects to what they deem incendiary.
Not all challenges lead to banning, but many do. Among the reasons: profanity, witchcraft, violence, sex, defiance of authority, science fiction and fantasy.
Then there’s Tango, the penguin. Abandoned as an egg by his mother, New York City’s Central Park Zookeepers gave the egg to a pair of male Chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo to hatch and raise. The 2005 picture book, And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, chronicles their story, and has been ALA’s top challenged book for five years.
In an age where we worry that people aren’t reading more than a text message or a tweet, where bookstores are closing one after another, what could be more important than promoting the freedom to read?
I credit my own growth as a reader to the books my friends and I surreptitiously passed to each other under the desks in 7th grade social studies class. I still remember those titles, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a censored perennial, among them.
As a teacher, I encouraged free choice in reading and taught a “Banned Book Week” unit. As a parent, I allowed total freedom of choice in reading, even as I cringed when my very young sons insisted I read the adventures of He-Man and She-Ra in the Masters of the Universe series endlessly. My daughter only wanted picture books about dogs. A friend of mine’s daughter only read books with the word “cat” in the title. These children, all adults now, became avid readers, consuming titles across genres.
While browsing in a bookstore in Manhattan, I overheard a woman lament to her friend, “My grandchildren don’t know from libraries; my daughter just orders books for them.” Too bad for those kids. They won’t experience the joy of browsing, of discovering a book or author or subject they might never learn about.
The next day, I received a huge box of children’s’ books from my graduate school mentor as gifts for my grandchildren. He wrote: “I hope your grandkids grow up reading real books.”
Judy Blume, author of many books for young readers and herself subject to censorship, wrote: “What I worry about most is the loss to young people. If no one speaks out for them, if they don’t speak out for themselves, all they get for required reading will be the most bland books available. And instead of finding the information they need at the library, instead of finding the novels that illuminate life, they will find only those materials to which nobody could possibly object.” (Editor: Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers Simon & Schuster, 1999.)