From The TU: On Banning Books

Well, I’m back again on the Times Union blog this week, talking about Courtney Summers and her novel Some Girls Are – and the fact that it was banned from a summer reading list because of one single irate mother.

You can check out the post here! (I’ll also paste the post below the cut).

I’d love to hear what you guys think about the practice of banning books. As you’ll see by my TU post, I’m not exactly a big fan.

There has been a lot of anger flooding my Twitter feed this week. People are angry about Cecil the Lion, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and a host of other issues.

But there’s one in particular I want to talk about. Because I’m a bibliophile, I tend to follow authors I enjoy or have met on Twitter. This week, an author named Courtney Summers and her book Some Girls Are were all over my feed. Why? Because that book was removed from a South Carolina high school’s summer reading list options after a parent decided it was inappropriate for her daughter and complained to the principal. Summers took to her Tumblr to discuss the situation after it was reported by the Post and Courier.

Full disclosure: I have not read Some Girls Are. I can’t speak to this exact book’s scenarios and how relevant or appropriate they are for freshman high school reading and beyond. The fact of the matter is, however, that this issue is not just about Courtney Summer’s book.

This is about the practice banning books we don’t necessarily like, and why we do that. Make no mistake, West Ashley High’s decision to “remove” this book from their reading list (which, by the way, gave another option for people to read) is banning the book. There is no other word for it.

Some of the most popular books in the world have been banned for various reasons (and we’ll get to them…). Classic or contemporary, children’s or adult, the list of banned books is made up of stories from every genre. Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, Sherman Alexie, and JK Rowling have all seen their books end up on banned lists – in America and around the world.

And what are these various reasons that books get banned? Most reasons fall under the umbrellas of “offensive” and “inappropriate.” Detailed reasons include: sexuality, drug use, language, witchcraft. There are many others. In college, I took a class where the only books on the syllabus were books that had been banned in places throughout the country. They included books that discussed sexual perversion (Lolita), promoted women’s rights, and showcased a slave rebellion (The Confessions of Nat Turner – graphic novel version). These books encouraged us to discuss things that many found uncomfortable. We had to question our realities. And that was a good thing.

Summer’s novel was brought to the principal’s attention because of a sexual act one mother, Melanie MacDonald, found inappropriate for her daughter. In an encouraging move, MacDonald wanted to be involved in her daughter’s education; they were going to do the summer reading together. The elder MacDonald reached the controversial part first, and immediately took her daughter’s book and went to the principal, demanding its removal from the summer reading list. That the principal bowed to this demand is not surprising, nor is it entirely disappointing. That’s what a principal is supposed to do in the situation. I’m more upset about MacDonald’s decision.

Why does one mother have the ability to decide what hundreds of students are meant to read? When was she granted the omniscient awareness and authority over levels of appropriate reading for all incoming freshman?

This is why banning books is a senseless act: No two people are the same, and what offends one might not offend another. Going further, it can be argued (and I believe it should be) that reading books you may not find comfortable is even more important to read than ones you do. Without emerging from your comfort zone, you’ll never grow. Whether Melanie MacDonald likes it or not, her daughter will be confronted in high school with bullying, access to drugs, and sexual desire. I’m less than a decade removed from high school, and all of that was there when I was. Pretending it isn’t and demanding a book be banned from a reading list because it contains any or all of these topics isn’t just naive, it’s irresponsible. I wrote on this blog a couple months back that YA is so important because it teaches us we’re not alone. Banning books only serves to perpetuate the myth that we are alone, that it’s only bad people that bad things happen to, that it’s better to ignore that which is unfamiliar than learn about and empathize with the world around you.

In this instance, it is not Courtney Summers who will suffer the ill effects of Melanie MacDonald’s hyper-sensitivity, it’s her daughter. Many, many people have read Summers’ novel – when I get my hands on it, I’m going to become a part of that club. MacDonald’s daughter, however, will have to claw and fight her way out of the grasp of a mother who, while well-intentioned, in inhibiting her ability to deal with the reality of what’s in the world outside of the safe bubble of her home.

We need authors to write what’s real to them in their time. Whether that’s Twain using an offensive word, Sinclair exposing the underbelly of industry, or Summers portraying uncomfortable, life-changing moments from high school, we need literature to reflect the world around us even if we don’t like it.

An authority figure only allowing books they agree with to be published, read, etc. is called propaganda. Good books with harsh, uncomfortable themes need to be read. We need to be able to articulate why they make us uncomfortable, and work to change our culture – not the reflection of it. If Melanie MacDonald doesn’t want her daughter to read about a girl who is *****SPOILER***** sexually assaulted, she should work to change the culture we live in where it’s still somehow universally believed that a woman’s or girl’s is not her own to control. She should talk to her daughter about the realities of that situation, and what to do if she ever feels unsafe.

I don’t mean to say that a parent shouldn’t have final say over their child, particularly when said child is young. But this crosses a line. One singular parent’s opinion on the appropriateness of a novel shouldn’t be allowed to dictate what a teacher can discuss during the year. Ignoring the problem and saying it’s not suitable for that age group doesn’t make the issue go away.

Banning books will only ever ensure that those who are not allowed to read them suffer. Books are written as reflections of reality. At some point, we must all look in the mirror.


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