It-Along Update: It’s Banned Books Week!

I suppose there are some individuals out there who are NOT aware of the American Library Association’s annual celebration of the freedom to read. If you, dear reader, are among them — or if you’re not and want more information anyway — click the above badge to be taken to the ALA’s webpages and learn everything you ever wanted to know about the subject.

But read the rest of this blog entry first, okay?

I’m on page 662, roughly halfway through the behemoth that is IT, and believe at this point it’s highly unlikely I’ll finish by October 14. Getting ready to move to Georgia is cutting into my reading time, darn it! Right now, the adult versions of our kid heroes have gone walkabout in Derry after the horrifying end to their reunion luncheon. Ben’s encounter with Pennywise in the library still gives me chills.

It strikes me as perfectly appropriate to be reading Stephen King at the start (and throughout) Banned Books Week. Mr. King is one of the authors whose works are frequently challenged and/or removed from school and public libraries. In fact, he wrote an essay about just that fact way back in 1992. And while I may agree that his work doesn’t belong in an elementary school library, I find it hard to believe that any child over age 12 (that is, in middle school) hasn’t already seen or heard worse violence or language on cable or at the movies. Frankly, I find Spongebob Squarepants and The Fairly Oddparents more offensive and detrimental to children than anything that can be found on the shelves of a public library. Of course, I feel that way about most television programming aimed at children. Okay, most television programming, period.

(DISCLAIMER: I actually love television, but I’m extremely selective about what I watch. The major networks lost me long ago with their Videodrome-like emphasis on bogus reality shows, asinine sitcoms, and recycled hospital and/or cop dramas, not to mention their penchant for canceling any show I found remotely intriguing (Flashforward, anyone?). These days it’s mostly BBC America, National Geographic, Science, and History Channels that keep my attention. Well, and the occasional smart network sitcom, like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.)

Anyway, back to book stuff…

I was lucky. My mother read to me all the time, probably from the moment I was born. I honestly don’t remember when I learned to read myself. I know I was already reading by the time I entered kindergarten at age 4, although it must have escaped the notice of my kindergarten teacher. Mom told me once that my first grade teacher called her shortly after the start of school and asked her if she knew I could read. Mom said, “Of course.” Teacher said, “No, I mean really read, not in a halting one-word-at-a-time fashion, but easily? In flowing sentences?” Mom said, “Of course, why wouldn’t I know that? I taught her.” My mom rocks. (But she’s still not getting that afghan. Well, maybe she is. Daughter-guilt is not a pretty thing.)

This was the library when I was a kid.
Now it’s the home of the Paso Robles Historical Society.

Every Saturday in the summer, when Mom went into town to do the grocery shopping, she dropped my sister and me off at the public library. I still remember running up the big stone steps and then down another set of stairs which led into the basement where the children’s section lived. Sissy and I would spend a couple of hours reading and picking out new books to take home. We always checked out as many books as we were allowed, devoured them through the week, and brought them back the following Saturday. During the school year, we had access to the school library and didn’t visit the public library all that often.

My folks never questioned the appropriateness of any book we brought home from the school or the public library. We were reading and that’s all that mattered. And I read everything as I grew up: horse books, abandoned children books (such as Island of the Blue Dolphins and Green Mansions), Mother West Wind stories, science fiction, biographies, horror, fables, fairy tales, books about science and rocks and dinosaurs and geology. I read the books my parents had read: mysteries and crime fiction, mostly, with the occasional steamy romance tossed in for good measure. I was forbidden to read a book only once. When I was 11 years old, The Exorcist was the hottest title on the bestseller lists. Mom bought it for herself. When she finished reading it, she told me, “You may not read this book until you are older.” “Okay, Mom,” I said, and never gave it a second thought. With the wide open freedom I had to choose my own reading material, being barred from one book in which I had only a vague interest was not a big deal.

So how is my being barred at age 11 from reading The Exorcist not censorship? Simple. My mother exercised her parental prerogative to control the reading material of her minor child within our family unit. And then she stopped. She didn’t try to prevent other people’s children from reading it. She didn’t mount a protest with the school or public library to have that book removed from their shelves. She and Daddy didn’t write letters to the editor of the local newspaper proclaiming that devil worshippers and Satanists were trying to indoctrinate the youngsters of San Luis Obispo, and stop them, stop them, stop them now!

Parenting. Yeah, they did it right.

That’s where the line gets drawn, though. At the edge of the family unit. No one, I repeat, no one other than myself has the right to dictate what my children (if I had any) will read. I applaud those librarians who tell the naysayers and it’s-for-your-own-good-niks to stuff it. I weep for the school boards who cave under the pressure of a very loud and vocal minority. I want to buy a copy of every book removed from a middle school or high school reading list for every student in that school. I want to tell every single one of those parents who object to any book their child brings home to leave their objections at the door of their house. They have no right beyond that. My goodness, if they’re that afraid of what their children might be reading in school, why are they sending them to school in the first place? Home schooling is an option in every state of the Union, you know. (Although I have a rant about home schooling, too. I’ll save it for some other time.)

Books open minds, point in new directions, reveal different viewpoints, question received wisdom. Book encourage thought. Books are powerful. This power threatens certain individuals. I get that. But be afraid in your own house, and stay out of my library.

By the way, 40 years later, I still have not read The Exorcist. Not because my mother still forbids it. In fact, when relaying this story at a family gathering some years ago, Mom said, “Well, you’re allowed to read it now if you want to.”

Thanks, Mom.


3 thoughts on “It-Along Update: It’s Banned Books Week!

  1. This is one of my favorite posts ever, because I had that same experience of reading as a child. Our bookshelves were full at home, and no matter what I picked there or at the library, no one ever said no. I remember one time my mother cautioned me that a book might be a little challenging (it was Faulkner; I was maybe 14, and she was right), but other than that, the only book that vanished was my version of your The Exorcist, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. “Hey, where’s that new book club book?” I asked my sister and mother. “Too old for you,” my mother said. And I swear for YEARS I couldn’t find a copy of that damn book used or new. When I finally read it, I agreed. It would have been too old for me at the time. But as in your situation, she never thought it was any of her business what other people’s kids read. That was on their parents. Same with my father, who was a teacher and assistant principal among many other careers. The whole idea of banning books was anathema to them and to the three voracious readers they helped create.


    • Portnoy’s Complaint…that’s the “sex novel”, right? Yes, I can imagine some parental control was exercised there. 🙂 Haven’t read it. Haven’t read any Roth, actually. I bought a copy of The Human Stain several years ago and have yet to pick it up. Someday.


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