[Note: September 25 – October 2 is Banned Books Week
Some ten or fifteen years ago, I called home to see how my parents were getting along and Dad told me the town was in an uproar over a book called The Giver. There was a movement afoot to have the book banned in the school system and as one of the little town’s most respected preachers, he’d been called to appear before the school board to deliver his own arguments on whether or not the book ought to be left on the shelves.
Now, having grown up in this town and having had to defend myself regularly from such questions as “Why you always readin’ them books?” and “Them books got good pictures?”, I have to admit that I was a bit shocked to learn that someone else was actually reading. The fact that they had then decided to ban the book was far less surprising to me.
Then it occurred to me that I didn’t know which side of the issue my dad would be arguing for. I had suspicions, though. My parents are great people in a million ways but when I was growing up, they were incredibly suspicious of secular culture. We weren’t even allowed to listen to Christian rock music because there was an outside chance that Petra was as evil as Journey. I’m not kidding. They did come around as we got older (Beat the System was the first vinyl I ever bought), but when I heard about this book-banning business I instantly relived those old suspicious days and my hackles went up.
I needn’t have feared, though. I asked Dad what he was going to tell the school board and the first thing he said was “Well, I read the book . . .” and right then I knew what he was going to say. I knew it because he’d read the book, he’d dispelled ignorance. He went to the school board and made his case and the book stayed on the shelves. In retrospect I know my Dad wouldn’t have been in favor of banning a book whether he’d read it or not, but in that moment, I did wonder.
He told me later that the council chamber was split down the middle between those who were for the banning and those who were against it. I can’t help but wonder how many of those on the against side could start their arguments with “Well, I read the book . . .” Probably not many, and I bet those who could did their reading with suspicious eyes and little context. So, well done, Dad. The book is still on the shelves and I have a feeling a that whole lot of people in the county went out and bought a copy during the uproar just to see what the fuss was all about. I doubt there was much uproar left after folks started reading it and some may have even had their horizons broadened by an inch or two.
More recently, a family I worked with at a group home listened to all the Harry Potter naysayers and banned the book in their house. They wouldn’t even entertain my defenses of it or my suggestion that they ought read it first and make up their minds second. I spent a lot of time with one of the boys they cared for who had read most of the Potter books before he joined the home. I had a number of great conversations with him about their humor, characters, themes, and lessons and those talks laid the basis for a healthy and joyful relationship between us. For a teenage boy from a broken home with a built-in mistrust of adults and authority, this was a step in the right direction.
But when his houseparents found out he’d been hiding a book in his room and reading it in secret, they burned the book and punished him. He came to me later, knowing I would understand their ignorance, and asked me to buy him the next book in the series. It broke my heart, but I had to tell him no. I had to tell him that even if I disagreed with his parents’ decision, I still had to abide by it and wouldn’t help him sidestep their rules. What he didn’t understand at the time was that there was more at stake than merely a book to read, there was a deeper lesson to learn about honoring those who are given authority over us, even when (especially when) we think they are wrong.
I continued to have a great working relationship with the boy but his relationship with his houseparents was completely broken. In their ignorance, by judging the books they’d also judged him. Instead of seeing an opportunity to deepen a relationship, foster discussion, and encourage growth, they’d taken something that was beautiful and meaningful to the boy and called it evil. They cast it out, forbade it from their presence, and then punished him for it. They never regained his trust.
The difficult part for me was that these parents were good friends of mine. They were wonderful people who blessed me in a multitude of ways. But they let themselves be blinded by ignorance to the point of destroying not only a book, but their relationship with a child who needed their support. So what exactly did they gain by banning the book? I still don’t know.
Every time I read about someone trying to ban a book, I have to scratch my head and wonder what on earth they hope to accomplish. I just can’t find an upside to that kind of thinking, which is, of course, another aspect of the ignorance that starts the fuss in the first place. The most obvious result of an attempted ban is that the book will sell a heck of a lot more copies. People will read it out of sheer curiosity. People who don’t even like to read books are wont to pick it up and give it a try. Book banning is a self-defeating goal, plain and simple. The only effective way something can be banned is quietly, George Orwell 1984-style; and that’s truly scary because the masses never know that the subject of the banning existed at all. Hopefully, nothing like that will ever happen in our country. (This is close but somewhat justifiable, I think. Still scary.)
So by all means, if you want to ban a book, be vocal about it. Let me know its happening so I can run out and buy a copy and make up my own mind. If I don’t like it, guess what happens. Nothing. I don’t tell people about books I don’t like (well, not unless they are Twilight bad). And if it’s full of themes and language that I don’t approve of, guess what I do. I read something else. You don’t want your kids reading something that you suspect is subversive? Ignore it; downplay it. Give them a wealth of other choices. Are they required to read it in school? Great! You’ll have a lot of important conversations about it. If a book offends you and you feel like you have to speak out, protest the content and advocate for other options.
Or you can try banning it. I wish people would ban The Fiddler’s Gun. I really do. I’d love to see it argued over in town hall meetings and picketed at libraries. I’d love to see it on the news being burned by Fred Phelps. I’d love to have the readers and the sales.
I’ll leave you with a (partial) list of books that have come under the threat of being banned in just the last ten years. You heard me right. Ten years. People have tried to ban these books, not thirty or forty years ago, but since the year 2000. It’s scary. I really do wish someone would add my book to the list. It would be in good company.
Of Mice and Men
The Catcher in the Rye
Bridge to Terabithia
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Color Purple
The Golden Compass
The Kite Runner
To Kill a Mockingbird
And beyond ten years. . .
The Great Gatsby
The Grapes of Wrath
The Lord of the Flies
Brave New World
The Sun Also Rises
A Farewell to Arms
Gone with the Wind
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Call of the Wild
The Lord of the Rings
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.