Somehow, my Nerd Detector failed to sound the alarm and I missed the 30th Anniversary of “Banned Books Week”, sponsored by the American Library Association. I clicked on an article and began to read, assuming it would entail a sad but concluded history of censorship in this country, only to learn, it’s far from over. I encourage you to click on the highlighted text and educate yourself on a list of banned books you’ll never believe are being kept from our kids, along with how and why books are banned.
This is particularly disturbing to me for deeply personal reasons. I’ve spent a lifetime whining incessantly about the perils of being born last into a very large family, what with hand-me-downs, worn out shoes I had to consider ‘new’, sharing a bed with more than one sibling, and the like. It would be unfair of me not to share the best advantage of being born last in line… everyone read to me when I was little. We were profoundly poor but used books filled our home. The very best hand-me-downs I received were the books my brothers and sisters had outgrown and tired of. What I lacked in privacy or material goods vanished in the world of books.
No one believes me when I tell them I could read with
comprehension by the age of three, but my family will steadfastly assure you, I’m telling the truth. Between family members and the elderly Czech neighbor who was like a grandfather to me, I became fluent in the language of books well before I entered school. To the dismay of my Kindergarten teacher, my Adventures with Dick and Jane were an absolute bore since I was well into The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. By 3rd and 4th Grade, I had already begun to consume Mark Twain and Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. I was then swallowed into the world of Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stevenson. In retrospect, I look back upon these books as my rescuers.
When I was 12, my father and closest confidante died suddenly and unexpectedly. That same year, I fell victim to a pedophile and after my father’s death, my mother became deeply depressed and permanently detached. I could have felt completely alone in the world, but through it all, I never felt alone because I had books. I had books that would take me around the world to the most exotic places. They were filled with brave and adventurous people who carried me with them on their exciting journeys. Those books would later become the impetus for my world travels and the events within those pages taught me that worldly struggles were not mine and mine alone. My sister Barbie will tell you, it was unheard of for me not to be reading, or at the very least, carrying a book. That habit became a bone of contention with my mother who would bitterly admonish me to “get your nose out of that book and do something useful!” When she wanted to punish me, she would confiscate my books. That lead me to the practice of creating a secret hiding place for my book stash. There was an old and long forgotten wooden box in the barn. I had swiped some heavy plastic used to cover the windows of the old farm house that shielded us from the brutal howling winds of the Iowa prairie in January. I would carefully wrap each book and hide them in the wooden box to protect them from the moisture and the field mice and my mother. No matter what happened to me in this world, my other world was lovingly protected in plastic and safely secured in that box.
When I entered high school, I begged, from the first day of my freshman year, for a job in the library. In our tiny rural school, there were no student assistants in the library. But after months of constant badgering, and because of my stellar grades, I was granted an hour a day in the school library to check books in and out, return books to their proper shelf, and of course, to continue my clandestine search for the next great read.
One day, when the weather had turned cold, I went to hang my coat in the library closet. I had never before opened that door and what I found there, fascinated me. The closet led to a tiny room that was filled with books. I asked the head librarian about it, and she whispered that these were books that had been banned by the school board. Because I had read so many of these same books at home, I was unsure of the true meaning of “banned” and it lead to a long conversation with my teacher and friend, the librarian. She was the one who taught me about the concept of censorship and why it was so dangerous. She had far more trust in the mind of a child than the local school board and I loved her for that. Ultimately, she was convinced that I should be entrusted with these books, and as long as I promised never to reveal the existence of the “back room books”, she permitted me to smuggle them out, one at a time, with the promise these would be read only at home. Since I could not risk my mother confiscating these titles, they were immediately wrapped in the heavy window plastic and remanded to my secret box. Through that very trusting and open-minded educator, and I use that term with the utmost love and respect, I was permitted to read Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice”, Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle” and Robert Cormier’s “Chocolate War”. After finishing each volume, I would engage in in-depth discussions of the characters and subtext of each book with my librarian. I had no idea at the time we had formed the first Book Club.
Such is my love affair with books and since a house can only hold so many of them on my budget, this year, my darling sister gifted me with a Kindle for my birthday that is already filled with more than 2,000 titles. It’s a virtual bookshelf that fits neatly into my handbag. *contented sigh*
While researching the topic of banned books, I came across a YouTube video (my regular readers know how I loves my YouTube as a teaching tool). There, I watched the wonderful and insightful educator and author, Donna Jo Napoli. She is not only a prolific writer of books for young adults, but a Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. What I loved most about this video was how she was able to verbalize why books became the lifeline of a tortured and lonely teenager from Iowa in the 70’s. She gave, perhaps, the most loving and cogent argument against the censorship of literature. I know, it’s 15 minutes long, but it’s important, so I ask you to invest a little of your soul in her words:
I was moved to find her, write to her with a Reader’s Digest version of my story, simply wishing to thank her for her defense of free thought, of children and of books in general. Professor Napoli kindly wrote back:
Oh, Carol, I got chills reading this message. Thank you so much for writing. And you have made me happy. You are confirmation of what I see as the power of books. Spread the word. Let’s open the doors of the “back room books” for all children. Let’s let our minds travel, even when our bodies may be shackled.
So, when your church pastor admonishes
the congregation for exposing their children to the evil witchcraft within the pages of “Harry Potter”, think for yourself and appreciate that it’s only a wonderful fantasy, not a hidden message from “Satan”. When the neighbor whines that “50 Shades of Gray” is nothing but smut and should be banned from the local library, remember that your sexually repressed neighbor should not get to decide what is and is not smut. This is the same woman who will tell you she loved Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”. When you remind her that Harper Lee’s masterpiece was banned because it contained charges of interracial rape, murder, the attack of a child and the word, “nigger” 48 times, she will respond, well, I don’t want that book banned. This happens just after she tells me she even has one “negro” friend. What she is saying is that she should get to decide what ideas should be available to the general public, that we should all abide by her standard of what should and should not be available to you.
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
— Harry S. Truman, message to Congress, August 8, 1950
“The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”
Free your minds, friends. Take the time to give a child a book.
Carol Baker is a free-lance political writer and sometimes satirist. She is a regular contributor to Here Women Talk.
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