When we talk about Banned Books, we very often talk about the people who attack books, and the people (or institutions) who actually ban them. But we also need to consider the readers from whom these books are taken. In reading more about banned books and their impact, it becomes apparent very quickly how desperately these books are needed. For many people, the difficult situations, challenging stories, and troubling characters that are in these books offer readers a way to understand themselves and their lives. They offer hope and voice to people who very often feel they have neither.
There are few authors who understand their heart-rending impact on readers more that Sherman Alexie, author of the most challenged book in America: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The book tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist who leaves the troubled schools on his Spokane Indian Reservation in order to attend an all-white school in the nearby farming community. The novel was inspired by Alexie’s own childhood, which was at least as difficult as Junior’s, if not more so.
In 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal criticizing the violence and sex in teen books in general, and in Alexie’s work specifically. The piece is a rather knee-jerk reaction to the idea that teenagers are now an independent demographic in the publishing industry, and many books written for them featured dark, difficult (and realistic) subject matter–an idea with which Gurdon was clearly not pleased: “Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.”
Guron’s argument seems as much based in her distrust of teenagers as with the books themselves: “…teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.” Interestingly, she holds up Judy Blume’s Dear God, Are You There, It’s Me, Margaret? as a worthy example of teen literature, despite the fact that it’s one of the most frequently challenged books in America.
She ends with expressing frustration at those who don’t approve of her taking away other people’s books: “In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!” (by the way, this is actually the definition of censorship, just so we are all clear).
Sherman Alexie’s response is simply stunning, and deserves to be read in its entirely, which you can do here. In it, he talks about the readers he has met who found, in his book, people who had suffered like them–and people who survived that suffering–and also the courage to survive, as well. According to Alexie, “kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.” He goes on to question, “Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”
I’ll let Alexie have the final word here, because nothing can sum up why banned books are so important–for marginalized, lonely, confused readers as well as supported, self-assured, and/or privileged readers, and why we need to protect these readers and their books so carefully:
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists. No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
Two years ago, I met a young man attending one of the most elite private high schools in the country. He quietly spoke to me of his agony. What kind of pain could a millionaire’s child be suffering? He hadn’t been physically or sexually abused. He hadn’t ever been hungry. He’d never seen one person strike another in anger. He’d never even been to a funeral. So what was his problem?
“I want to be a writer,” he said. “But my father won’t let me. He wants me to be a soldier. Like he was.”
He was seventeen and destined to join the military. Yes, he was old enough to die and kill for his country. And old enough to experience the infinite horrors of war. But according to Ms. Gurdon, he might be too young to read a YA novel that vividly portrays those very same horrors.
“I don’t want to be like my father,” that young man said. “I want to be myself. Just like in your book.”
I felt powerless in that moment. I could offer that young man nothing but my empathy and the promise of more books about teenagers rescuing themselves from the adults who seek to control and diminish him.
Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads. And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them…
And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.