Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Censorship Sucks

When my daughter was a year old, I was struggling my way through my first year as a public school teacher.One of these days I'll actually blog about that year (one of the best, worst, and insane years of my life so far) but I'm not going to do that today.

Today, I'm going to talk about censorship. Because during that year, I stared censorship square in the face for the first time.

Now, it almost seems quaint to talk about the stink people made over the Harry Potter books a decade (or more!) ago. There were phone campaigns and demonstrations and well-meaning public radio hosts who were misguided into thinking that balanced reporting meant having a bunch of illiterate book-haters spewing nonsense on their show about how a single book was going to turn Our Nation into a bunch of tree-hugging, goddess-worshiping (though still godless, right?) hippy-freak magic addicts. One page of Harry Potter, and it's off to Hell we go!

I mean, sure, there's still people out there stinkin' it up like it's still 1999, but mostly it's all water under the bridge, right?

Or, maybe not.


Ten years ago, I was teaching a leveled reading class, and the kids had six weeks of literature circles - two weeks per book, and the kids would rotate from table to table, choosing the books and groups that interested them. There was one table devoted to Harry Potter. I'd say about twelve kids in all read it.

And oh! The Stink was mighty.

What killed me was that the parents who complained didn't even have kids who chose to read Harry Potter. I designed the course specifically so that there were more stations than there was time to read it all. Best to allow the kids to hear other kids talking about different books. Create a culture of reading. A multiplicity of books! (See how young I was! How brimming over with optimism and hope!)

Still, there were parents who didn't want their kids in the same room as other kids who were reading Harry Potter. Apparently, immorality and magic can spread like lice, and book cooties are epidemic.

I remember having a conversation with a parent, trying to reason my way through a forest built by un-reason. She was concerned that having the book in the same room as her son would make him lose his faith. (Yeah. I know.)

"Listen," I said, "I'm a practicing Catholic, a Theology major and a general Acts-Of-Christian-Mercy type, and I'm noticing all kinds of themes in this book that are actually friendly - and largely in sync - with our religion."

"Well," she said. "I wouldn't know anything about that. I haven't read it, and I never will."

Which seems to be the theme with those who seek to censor.

Later, when I was an on-the-road fiction instructor with the Writers in the Schools program, I had a principal get in my face for just suggesting that the students read a copy of Kelly Link's amazing short story "Flying Lessons". He'd heard there was a scene where the main character shoplifts (there is). "The last thing we need is an epidemic of thievery around here," he said.

Another principal had an issue with my recommendation (!!!!!) of a Jeff Vandermeer story called "Dradin In Love". (He'd heard it was sacrilegious. "Do you have any idea what the god-fearing types would do to me if they heard I allowed that in the school?")

Again, these are people who hadn't read the works in question.

Which brings me to this mess in Texas. Here's the story: This amazing lady, was invited to present at the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas. Why? Because her books are incredible, raw and brave. And important.  And then, when a small group of people felt that she had too many Edgy cooties and Dark cooties, raised up a Stink the size of Texas and dis-invited her. So some of the other invitees have disinvited themselves, thank you very much, and we now have ourselves a Texas-sized to-do. 

Now, a lot of people have written about it with more clarity and understanding than me. Ellen Hopkins, for starters.  It was her book that raised the ire of a small group of parents and a single librarian, who somehow had the power to overrule every other organizer who felt that Ellen's contribution to the festival would be a positive impact for books, for readers, for librarians, for teachers, but most of all, for kids. Pete Hautman, one of the writers who disinvited himself in solidarity with Ellen (and in solidarity with books), has also written on the subject, and his piece made my blood run icy and cold. (side note - Pete was a teacher of mine way back, and is a kick-ass writer, teacher and thinker and is generally a righteous guy)


Look. I'm a parent. I get it about wanting to protect a child from the world's agony and pain. And wickedness. And greed. And hatred. And everything. It don't make it right. In fairy tales, the kings who locked their daughters at the tops of tall towers were likely just trying to be good parents. They were idiots, of course, and their little schemes backfired. So, too, will the little scheme in Texas and every other bone-headed censorship attempt.

The point is this: Children do not belong to their parents (as much as we'd like to think otherwise); children belong to the world. You belong to the world. And it is up to parents and teachers and librarians and kindly neighbors and any other adult that's important in a kid's life to give that kid the tools necessary to exist and understand and thrive in the world. Their world. Your world.

Books are a tool. So is talking. So is listening.

3 comments:

Teh Awe-Some Sauce said...

"Apparently, immorality and magic can spread like lice, and book cooties are epidemic."

Love this line. I always figure book banners are the same people who will have a fit when their little darling brings home someone of another race. Small minded bigoted people.

I recently heard Chris Crutcher speak and he said something along the lines of "I knew my books mattered when someone tried to ban them." I can understand parents not wanting THEIR children reading a certain book, but to insist that NO ONE should read a book? That's just silly.

Besides, the head in the sand metality doesn't help anyone. Whether you acknowledge the existence of the bad things in this world or not, they still exist. That's like thinking that because you don't believe in drowning water can't kill you. AHHHH!

Okay, getting off of my soapbox now. Great post, Kelly!

kellybarnhill said...

Thank you!

And no need to step off the soapbox any time soon. I'm still standing on mine, preaching it to the wind, to the trees, to the sky, and to anyone who might want to listen.

I do so love me a good soapbox.

E. Kristin Anderson said...

"Children do not belong to their parents...they belong to the world." I LOVE this, Kelly. Genius.

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