Some years back, a good friend of mine told me a story about her nine-year-old son, who came to her wanting to read a particular series of adult books that he’d heard his late-teenaged siblings talking about. The books in question were great adventure books, but they did contain several explicit mentions of sex – not graphic, but quite clear. After long consideration, the parents decided that the boy could read the books, provided he came to talk them over with his parents afterward.
The son went away happily and read the books, then dutifully presented himself for the talk. And the first thing his mother said was, “So, did the sex in those books bother you at all?”
The boy’s eyes went wide. “There was sex in those books?” he said in astonishment. “I better read them again!”
I mention this because once again it is Banned Books Week, and I’ve been poking around in the statistics on book challenges that the American Library Association has been collecting for the past twenty years. A few quick calculations show that sexual explicitness was a factor in roughly thirty percent of the challenges, and that 72% of the recorded challenges were to books in schools or school libraries…and the vast majority were brought by a concerned parent.
This is unsurprising, really. People will go to amazing lengths to protect children – their own or other people’s. And I don’t know anyone who, reading levels aside, thinks third-graders should be reading graphic horror, slasher books, or something like The Silence of the Lambs. The problem is with where to draw the lines, and with who draws them.
It’s also a problem of trust and fear. Challenges to books always are. We don’t trust other people to see the same things we do, to have the same objections, to be intelligent or compassionate or concerned enough to come to the same conclusions we do about a particular subject or a particular portrayal. We don’t trust them to agree with us – and why should we? There’s plenty of evidence around that other people don’t hold the same opinions, whatever those opinions may be.
When it comes to children, however, the issues of fear and trust come out even more strongly. As I’ve pointed out before, fiction is dangerous. Parents fear – sometimes rightly – that their children will be hurt, that they won’t be able to handle scenes or concepts that are too advanced, that they will be exposed to ideas and values that are contrary to the ones the parents believe in. That fear knows no politics; in talking with librarians and teachers, I’ve heard over and over that as many challenges come from the political left as from the political right. The objections are different; the reasoning is always the same: children should not be exposed to X because it will hurt them in some way.
And the more I see and hear of this, the more I wonder: Does anyone ever ask the kids what they think? Not often, I suspect. Yet the vast majority of children I’ve talked to seem to me to be much more sensible and aware than most adults give them credit for. They’re quite capable of spotting and avoiding books that bother them. They know a lot more, at pretty much every age, than most adults think they do, and they don’t automatically absorb and agree with things just because someone wrote about it.
Nevertheless, protecting children is an adult’s business. Unfortunately, protection is not a one-size-fits-all thing. The book that gives one child nightmares may be exactly what another child needs to read to help him/her cope with a difficult situation. The real decision is not “Should we protect all children from nightmares by removing this book from places they can easily find it?” but “Do we take the chance that one child will be hurt directly by leaving on the shelves a book that will give her nightmares, or do we remove the book and take the chance that another child will be hurt indirectly because he has been denied access to something that would have helped him?”
People who want books pulled off school library shelves are trying to protect all children, without recognizing that different kids have different needs and without trusting young people to stop reading books that are too much for them. They come down hard on the side of preventing direct harm (as they see it), rather than preventing indirect harm. Yet it’s a lot easier to teach children not to put a hand on the stove because it will burn them (immediate, direct harm) than to convince them that eating greasy hamburgers from the take-away place is bad for them (long-term, indirect harm) – at least, my siblings and I begged for the take-out hamburgers for years and years, despite our parents’ explanations, while I don’t recall any of us ever defying them over the stove.
Adults, as a group, don’t really trust anyone under twenty-one to make good decisions or good choices. But while it is obviously true that the younger the child, the less life experience they have from which to draw conclusions, I don’t think that young people do any worse, as a group, than adults when it comes to a lot of the decisions they have to make. I also think the old saw about the way you avoid making mistakes is through experience, and the way you gain experience is by making mistakes. And frankly, making a mistake about what kind of book to read is a lot safer than some of the, um, experience I remember gaining along the way.
Lines do have to be drawn sometimes, but I think that decisions about what is appropriate for all children (as opposed to a particular parent’s individual child) need to be made with great care and consideration, and probably with the default being to let a particular book stay on the shelves. Because I think that children can be trusted considerably farther than many adults think when it comes to avoiding – or, like my friend’s son, just not seeing – material in books and stories that are harmful to them.