By Margaret Lucke
When I was twelve and in the seventh grade, I read On the Beach, by Nevil Shute, a grim novel about people facing death from radiation in the aftermath of a nuclear war. I chose it for the best of reasons--a cute guy in my class was reading it and I wanted to impress him.
Mom's reply: "I don't worry about what she reads. If a book is too adult for her, she won't really understand what it's talking about. And if she does, it's already too late."
When it came to my sisters and me, my parents set firm standards for behavior but not for ideas. While they urged us in the direction of certain attitudes, opinions and beliefs, they let us read whatever we liked. They understood that books can fire a child's imagination and give her an experience of ideas, cultures, and aspects of the human experience far beyond the boundaries of her own family and community. They knew that books are a good investment yielding lifelong benefits.
Not everyone understands this. I'm all for parents being aware of what their children read, of discussing with them the books and the ideas they contain, even sometimes making them set aside a particular book until they are older. But too many people, afraid of the power books have to change lives, feel they have right to dictate what others can read--not just their own children, but other people's kids. Other adults too.
Every year the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles lists of hundreds of books for which people have filed written complaints requesting that the book in question be removed from schools and libraries. The reasons cited: the books have too much sex or violence or bad language, or they depict lifestyles or beliefs with which the complainant disagrees.
This is in the U.S., where free speech and freedom of expression are dearly held principles. In many countries it's the government that steps in to ban books, afraid of what its citizens might do if they had unfettered access to ideas.
I don't know if On the Beach was ever banned or challenged anywhere (though it wouldn't surprise me), but a book I read and loved soon afterward made the list: Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Here's a random selection of ten more favorites (among many) that have been so "honored":
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White
Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss
Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 10th edition
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
September 21-27 is Banned Books Week, when librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers come together to celebrate the freedom to read and draw attention to attempts to restrict that freedom. You can learn more about it here.
A good way to celebrate? Find a book that has somewhere, at some time, been challenged or banned. Read it. And pass it on.