Bringing books home shouldn’t be a harrowing experience. They help us drift away from reality and explore worlds that otherwise wouldn’t exist, offering us ideas about new possibilities. But sometimes books get into trouble because of those ideas. In honor of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week (which runs from September 24 to October 1), we asked Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of not one, but TWO, banned books (Dairy Queen and The Off Season), to write about her experiences with book censorship. For a limited time, you can also read her new book, Wisdom’s Kiss, here on Figment!
By Catherine Gilbert Murdock
In truth, I’m an odd choice to be discussing censorship, for I rather empathize with the censors. What could be more admirable than keeping inappropriate material out of the hands of impressionable young readers? As a parent, I spend a not-inconsiderable amount of time trying to shape and direct my kids’ reading habits.
That doesn’t mean I’m correct, however. Or that my kids listen to me. Or that they should.
Here’s a story: my daughter and I are in a mother-daughter book group. Recently, the group set a policy that we could no longer read the mothers’ favorite books from childhood, because the books were always so bad. “I read _____ all the time when I was a kid,” one mom announced delightedly . . . and the next month, she apologized for a story that turned out to be predictable, meandering, and deadly dull.
Now, the mom certainly didn’t recall it being predictable and dull. She remembered a tale with a secret house and an orphan and a wonderful, luxurious resolution. Yet what she took from the story as a child had nothing to do with what she saw now as an adult. They were two different readers, reading two different books.
I had a similar experience last year when I sent my son off to summer camp with a thriller I’d just finished—I thought he’d like the ending. I then, over the following four weeks, regretted the decision intensely. The thriller had violence, sex and a stunning amount of just plain grossness. I lay awake nights convincing myself that he’d lost the book, or quit after the first chapter . . . And then he got off the plane, threw his arms around me and declared, “That book was so awesome! Can you believe that ending? It was the best fight ever!” The violence and sex hadn’t even registered; the grossness he appreciated as only a 14-year-old boy can. He read what he wanted—what he needed—to read. He still talks about that ending. Someday he’ll figure out the sex and violence parts, but for the moment those sins reside in a completely different book.
Kids read what they want to read, no matter what the book is. Of course children need boundaries, but the boundaries are a lot more distant than some adults would believe. As a kid, I adored books I could never read now; they’re too scary or brutal or (a la Flowers in the Attic) super-creepy. Like that book-club mom, I also read scores of books as a kid that were purely and simply bad. I had no discernment whatsoever. Curiously (or perhaps reactively), that’s my biggest criticism of my children’s reading: the books they choose are often poorly written. Bad plotting, bad characters, bad dialogue, bad messages.
In fact, if I were given the opportunity to censor a book, I’d censor the first, dull book I describe above, not the second one, the thriller. For all its impropriety, book number two is also thought-provoking, informative, and possibly brilliant. It has inspired several wonderful family conversations on a range of topics. In the universe of writing, it occupies a far more impressive world than book number one. That raunchy, unseemly thriller has substance.
I suspect, however, that many adults would object vociferously to my decision, and censor-wise would argue just the opposite. Which is precisely my point: it’s not my job to parent other people’s children—or vice versa. Heck, much as I might privately object, I don’t even like censoring my own kids; I’ve been proven wrong too often. I do, however, think it’s critically appropriate for me to understand what my kids are reading; to say, “I finished the first two chapters and I have to say, I don’t like how the characters speak to each other. What do you think?” At which point I may learn that my daughter loves the book because the characters wear orange uniforms, and she’s happily slogging her way through 184 pages out of loyalty to her favorite color.
That’s the thing: “personal freedom” doesn’t just mean the liberty to read what you want; it also means the liberty to read how you want . . . and to misread as well. Privacy includes the space inside your head, even if that space is sometimes delusional or confused or clueless. Trust me, I’m not mocking confusion: attempting to make sense out of the senselessness of existence is the essence of growing up. This means kids need to read material that’s beneath them and beyond them and beside the point, as they circle in on that target of adulthood. And “beyond them” doesn’t just mean themes; it applies to big words as well, and more intricate prose. Declaring a book too sophisticated for younger readers is grossly insulting to those readers, not to mention to our intellectual future.
If someone doesn’t want his or her child reading a particular book, that’s an issue to address within that family (though that parent might want to check under the mattress). But I plan to let my kids come of age at their own pace, ferreting out their unique and snaky paths to wisdom, in all its messy reality.