Friday, March 24, 2006

On censorship

A couple of recent cases have once again put the subject of book banning and censorship back into the news.

The first case comes from the great state of Texas where superintendent Ed Lyman pulled Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale from the AP English program because of a complaint from one student's mother. As is so often the case in these situations, the mother, Cindy Pyo, complained about sexual content in the book as well as finding it offensive to Christians. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and the school board voted 5-2 to reinstate the book.

The second case comes from the not so great state of California. Parents of kids attending Malibu high school are objecting to the selection of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones for a campus wide reading program for 9-12th graders. Again, the parents are objecting to sexual content and in this case, violence. It's hard to believe this is happening in Malibu, California, a bastion of liberal "free thinking".

Both of these cases raise important questions about censorship and specifically, book banning in schools. Should a book be banned because a small minority of parents or students find the book offensive or think that it's inappropriate? My answer to this is no. What you have here is a small minority trying to impose their ethics and beliefs on the majority. They have no right to do that. Just because one mother finds a book offensive doesn't mean she should be able to prevent the other children from reading it if their parents approve of the book. And that, in my opinion is the crux of the matter. It should be up to each individual parent to decide what's appropriate for his or her child to read.

I can understand where these parents are coming from. Many of the books selected for school reading increasingly have graphic sexual content, violence and other mature themes. Some are definitely not appropriate for young children. If they don't want their child to read the book, fine. These programs always have an alternate book the kid can read. They don't force them to read the assigned book if the parents strongly object. But most of the time the "controversial" books that show up on the banned books lists are either classics or really outstanding current literature. That's why they were selected in the first place. And in these 2 cases the books were selected for either an AP English class or a highschool reading program. Were not talking little kids here. These are kids who should be able to handle this kind of material

I've read both The Handmaid's Tale and The Lovely Bones and they are both wonderful books. These are great pieces of literature, especially Atwood's book. She's a marvelous writer. When Cindy Pyo says "I'm appalled by this trash book. When garbage goes in, garbage comes out. This is trash and it will corrupt the American youth", it becomes obvious she knows nothing about literature. She wouldn't know a good book if it hit her on the head. Margaret Atwood is one of the world's best writers. She's widely considered to be Canada's premier novelist. True there is sexual content in the book and puritanical religious fanatics might be offended by the way the book attacks and satirizes fundamental religion, but this is one truly great and thought provoking novel.

Would I let my 8 year old read either of these book? No I wouldn't. But I might when he's 12 or 13. I think kids today are already exposed to more sex and violence at a younger age than we were as kids. I also think they understand what's going on better than most adults think they do. I think they are able to handle mature themes, tell the difference between reality and fiction, know what's right and what's wrong.

This leads to a second important question. At what age do you let your kids start reading books with mature themes or sexual content. We've been having this discussion recently on the SKEMERS newsletter. Specifically, this topic arose when some people asked if it was appropriate for a 10 year old to read Stephen King's It. Not only is the book scary (it's a Stephen King book after all) but there is a scene near the end of the book where there is a group sexual encounter among kids. Do you want your kids reading about that? The responses have been variable but most have fallen along the lines of "Yes. I'd let my kid read it". I don't think you can make a blanket statement about something like this. I believe it not only depends on the child's age but on the individual child as well. Some 12 year olds could read this book and not bat an eye. Some 15 year olds may read this book and be shocked or embarrassed. It depends on the individual child involved. It's up to the parents to decide if their child is ready for something like that. I have an 8 year old and a 6 year old. They're not ready for books like that. My 8 year old is pretty mature for his age and quite "streetwise". I might let him read It at age 11 or 12 if he wants to. My 6 year old on the other hand is completely different. I can't see him reading a book like that before age 15.

The point is, every child is different. It's the parents responsibility to make sure their child is reading appropriate material. It is not a parents responsibility to police other kids reading material. Books should not be banned. Period. If you don't want your kid reading a certain book then don't let them, but don't try to censor what others can read. You don't have that right.

* a footnote. Since I first posted this yet another case has come to my attention, this one in my own hometown. Parents in Lawrence township challenged the book "The Kite Runner" because of language and graphic violence. Fortunatley, the school board voted to keep the book.


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