“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I promised you another post about banned books, and here it is! I meant to get it up during Banned Books Week but that didn’t work out, so this is just one day later. I’ve already discussed what I think about book banning, why book banners are clueless, and what my favorite banned book taught me. My focus now is on book-banning in YA, why certain subjects should not be so controversial for that genre, and how reading such books is actually a great thing for teen readers.
According to the American Library Association, many banned books are challenged for the following reasons: offensive language, references to sex and/or homosexuality, their religious viewpoints, and violence. I’m going to discuss all five subjects and why teens should read about them.
I think offensive language falls into one of two categories: swearing and racial slurs. Let’s tackle swearing first. I understand that people don’t want their kids reading “bad words” because then they might repeat them. Most books aimed at an audience too young for YA don’t feature swearing so the issue is specific to teens. The thing is, though, that by their teen years most kids likely already know those words. I may be in the weird minority that doesn’t swear (I just never got in the habit), but listen to how most teens talk when adults aren’t around. They’ll probably curse because they’ve picked up those words from parents, other kids, etc. Book banners are fighting a losing battle here.
As for racial slurs, I think they’re terrible. However, I think reading books with them can be an eye-opening experience for teens. Instead of banning teens from reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, adults should be talking to us about what we can learn from such books. Reading about how a character faces racism (or sexism, or whatever) could make someone think more deeply about how their words and actions affect others.
It’s going to be a bit weird to write about sex in YA, since my parents read this blog. Basically, I think there is no reason for teens to read explicit stuff, but anything less than that is probably fine. Often we teenagers don’t want to listen to adults but we might pay more attention to someone who is our age, even if they’re fictional. For example, Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff features a teen mom and points out that you don’t want to be in this situation, so make smart choices.
Related to this subject are books dealing with homosexuality or more broadly, LGBTQ+ issues. I want to point out two things here: first of all, books cannot turn anyone gay. Let’s stop worrying about that, OK? Secondly, I cannot stand it when people say, “But those books aren’t appropriate for kids!” So it’s not appropriate for me to read books about others like me? Really? I didn’t even find a book with a lesbian character until I was fourteen but once I did, such books helped me to stop worrying that I was a freak. LGBTQ+ teens can find role models in these books. They can know they’re not alone.
Criticizing a novel for its religious viewpoint strikes me as one of the most arrogant reasons to challenge a book. I’ve read several books challenged for that reason, such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and it seems that some object to them because they’re not Christian. Well… not everyone is Christian. I would guess that in other parts of the world where another religion dominates, books are banned for having character who don’t believe in that religion. Everyone – teens included – needs to stop assuming that because someone doesn’t have a particular belief, they are a bad person. If a book character is what makes you realize this, that’s great.
Moving on to violence, YA books usually (though not always) have teen protagonists, which means the violence in them will affect kids. I can understand why that makes people uncomfortable. But take a closer look. Most violent books don’t condone violence – Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy shows the reader how war hurts everyone, even the victors. I don’t know about you, but when I read those books I wasn’t thinking, “Ooh, I want to fight someone to the death in the Arena!” I was thinking, “Wow, I hope the world never ends up this way.”
Also, I think that while violent movies can have similar messages, violent books are ultimately better. Movies show you all the blood and guts, which may be too much for some people. When you read a book, however, you may imagine the scenes any way you wish. For instance, I hate the sight of blood so when there’s a sentence saying, “Bob and his hamster were both covered in the monster’s blood after it exploded and sprayed bits all over”, I don’t focus too long on that image.
As you can see, banned books don’t usually have easy-to-read content. They challenge us and get us thinking about Big Ideas. But that’s not a bad thing. As Wilde said, books are either well-written or badly written. Either their writing is thought-provoking and intelligent, or it’s not. A book’s worth does not depend on its content, but on if it makes us think and learn.