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 badge above to be taken to the ALA’s webpages and learn everything you ever wanted to know about the subject.
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.
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 that 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. I read an average of a book a night all throughout the school year — I’d check it out at lunch time or recess and bring it back the next day.
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: Walter Farley‘s 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 12 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 12 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, so stop them, stop them, stop them now!
Parenting. Yeah, they did it right.
That’s where the line gets drawn, you see. At the edge of the family unit. No one, I repeat, no one, other than my spouse and I, has the right to restrict what our children (if we 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 or library for every student in that school (you hear that, you silly Nashville Catholic School principal?) 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.
Books open minds, point in new directions, reveal different viewpoints, question received wisdom. Books 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 or bookstore.
By the way, some 40-plus 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 several years ago, Mom said, “Well, you’re allowed to read it now if you want to.”
(This more-or-less annual piece was originally written for 2012 Banned Books Week, and updated slightly for 2019.)