As an elementary school student, I spent my time in two places. On the baseball field and in the library. While I didn’t know I was dyslexic at the time, I did realize that the more I read, the easier it would be for me to get through school. With a little bit of read information, I could talk my way through just about anything with my teachers.
So I consumed as much as I could. I had a well-worn copy of Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting. I read all I could about dinosaurs (triceratops was always my fave) and about outer space (Saturn was tops by me). And, as appropriate for the time, I read every book I could find authored by Judy Blume.
Typical for me, one afternoon after school I went to the public library in our very progressive town in Massachusetts. In the stack of books I had was a copy of Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. The head librarian started checking me out, and then stopped when she saw that book. She promptly explained that this book was entirely inappropriate for a boy of my age, and she would not let me check it out. She also later called my mother, to inform her that I was accessing “inappropriate material.”
My mother was upset … with the librarian. She informed the library that I was authorized to check out any book I wanted, regardless of content. She also went out that weekend to by me my own paperback copy of the Blume book, which I read many times over.
Since then, I’ve read most of the books that were on the banned lists that were popular a few decades ago. Some I liked, some I didn’t. I still get outraged by those who seek to ban Mark Twain, feeling compelled to point out that the language was commonplace for the time (he did write in the mid-1800s) and the stories powerful. I was equally angry in recent years when the book Neither (a terrific board book teaching kids to be who they are), authored and illustrated by a friend of mine, was spotlighted as a book embraced by drag story hours across the country and thus worthy of cancellation.
Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I just don’t believe we should ban books … ever. Literature is a personal choice. Selections are driven by personal preferences and experiences and aspirations and interest. Just because a book is on the shelf in the library doesn’t mean I need to feel compelled to read it. In today’s day and age, after decades of seeing two-thirds of fourth graders failing to achieve reading proficiency, we should be doing every in our power to have young people read, regardless of what we might think of it.
So it was doubly disappointing, then, to see a recent article in Education Week about restricting titles in schools. For the past few years, we have seen progressives clutch their collective pearls over perceived efforts by conservatives to ban books in the classroom. We’ve seen discussions of “age appropriate” content described as if schools were burning piles of books in the public square. We share stories of allegedly emptied library shelves, of teachers terminated for reading a book on an unapproved list, and of parents exerting far too much power over materials available in the schools.
No, we shouldn’t taking books off of library shelves. No, we shouldn’t be firing teachers for reading age-appropriate books, regardless of content. And no, we should not let personal ideology determine what is appropriate or not in a public school classroom.
That’s why the recent article in Education Week was equally disturbing. Madeline Will writes a very smart piece detailing concerns by educators and parents for having Harry Potter books available and promoted in the schools. Unlike 10 or 15 years ago, this time our concern is not with witchcraft and wizardry and other unsupported fears of the far right. Instead, we now have progressives who want to strip our shelves of these important pieces of fiction because of opinions on social policies that the author has shared, opinions that are in no way reflected in any of the books that boast her name.
Or put more simply, since J.K. Rowling has made numerous public statements voicing an anti-transgender ideology, it may be time to cancel her from our public schools.
Forget that there is no similar ideology in the books. Forget that Harry Potter was responsible for getting millions of non-readers reading. Forget all those who found meaning and inspiration from the books. And forget that banning books, particularly age-appropriate books, is just plain wrong. Now we have those who have condemned the book bans pursued by groups like Moms for Liberty pursuing their own brand of ideological litmus tests and content cancellations.
Censorship is censorship, whether it is wearing a cloak of deep red or bold blue.
One would hope we could be sensible enough to separate the art from the artist, and to see the value that the latter can provide to our community.
One would hope we could be analytical enough to see educational value in content that we might personally dislike or disagree with.
One would hope we could be mindful enough to know that censorship, even in the defense of a noble belief, is anti-American.
And one would hope that we could be strong enough to shout from all the rooftops that we don’t ban books … ever.
We need Huck Finn. We need Captain Underpants. We need Tango. We need Handmaids. We need Kite Runners. We need Scout and Atticus. And yes, we need Harry Potter.
More importantly, we need content that forces learners to think, to question, to consider, to reconsider, to push back, and to analyze. Books help learners become critical thinkers, instead of consumers of propaganda.
And if you don’t believe me, maybe you should read up on the topic.