Thinking about Banned Books
I want to think out loud about a subject close to the hearts of most readers and writers: the recent uptick in banned books. and how banning books creates a selective history of our world. Those of you who read our blog often know that just a few months ago, contributor Patricia Bailey collected a wonderful list of Mixed-Up Files contributors’ favorite banned books. This post is also an excellent resource for websites to plug into when you want to take action–so you should go check it out!
I wanted to revisit the subject here on the We Need Diverse MG series because of the unfortunate truth that the majority of the books being challenged or banned in recent years are by and about underrepresented communities. It’s a clear attempt to remove diversity from our children’s bookshelves.
The reason I hear most often in my own community from parents who want to remove books is variations of this reasoning: “My child isn’t ready for that kind of story.” Or, “This is inappropriate or traumatizing, and I don’t want to scare my child.”
As a mother, I do understand the gatekeeping instinct that leads us to stand between our children and content that could frighten or traumatize them. Learning can’t happen when children feel threatened.
But children can’t learn empathy or understanding if they never have to be challenged to see beyond their own lives. Why shouldn’t a child who is raised in a safe white space be exposed to a book detailing the risks–and the joys–faced by BIPOC, AAPI, Native, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ communities? Why shouldn’t a Christian child learn what it’s like to be a Jew or a Muslim in America?
Banning Books Creates Selective History
Equally as important, and we all know this, children from underrepresented communities need to see themselves and their experience validated and normalized in books. When we scrub the shelves of diversity, we devalue the experience of a majority of the world’s population, and this is a tragedy for all. Moreover, banning books creates a selective history of who we are, and no one is served by an incomplete narrative.
Yes, adults do sometimes need to help children process what they read. But is that so bad? Don’t we want to support a more inclusive generation of children who are supposed to be the stewards of a smarter tomorrow?
The First Banned Book
I was curious about the history of banned books and how long the practice of controlling the narrative has been going on. I learned that while the practice goes back as far as ancient China, when Confucian scholars were buried alive, the first non-murderous American banning happened in 1637. Immigrant Thomas Morton wrote an anti-Puritan treatise called NEW ENGLISH CANAAN. It was such a scandalous and insulting book (this terrific article by Matthew Taub talks about how Morton compared his former community to crustaceans), the angry Puritans immediately scrubbed it, as though they could put the genie back in the bottle.
What intrigued me though, was that in addition to his comparatively hedonistic approach to life (can someone say maypole dancing?), he was also the closest thing that passed as an ally in those days. He broke off from the Puritans to establish his own community, forming economic partnerships with the Native population and getting rid of his business partner who owned enslaved people. Morton’s more diverse, inclusive, and equitable approach to community didn’t conform with the lockstep attitudes of the time, therefore his book was of suspect political nature.
Imagine a world like the one Morton envisioned, where we can embrace and honor our differences and thrive in each other’s company. I hope we will continue to write and read the books that give us space for this to happen, and to fight the crustaceans who try to ban them.