Thoughts on a Thursday: Banned Books Week edition!

In honor of this being Banned Books Week, this week’s Thoughts on a Thursday will be specifically focusing on topics related to banning books. Hopefully these won’t be the same points everyone shares all week, about intellectual freedom and all that jazz, though those are very important things to consider. Instead, I have some personal quibbles with, queries about, and quizzical glances at some specific titles and concepts in the world of challenged and banned books. Brace yourself. There’s some hot tea here.

Let’s begin. As usual, these are in no particular order.

People tend to associate banning books with conservative mindsets: banning Harry Potter for depicting witchcraft, or banning any book that includes gay characters, swear words, or sexual content. The most-challenged book this past year was opposed because it features a transgender character. But this isn’t always the case. There has always been debate about Huckleberry Finn for its use of racial slurs, with the fear that such words might make kids think racism is okay. But recently, I saw an interesting title included on a list of frequently challenged books: the children’s title Skippyjon Jones. The reason? Depiction of Mexican stereotypes, especially its use of “mock Spanish.”

Because the book is copyrighted, I can’t put pictures of any of the objectionable content, but really? A (white) Siamese cat who pretends to be a brown Mexican dog? That’s already pretty messed up.

For once, this is an objection that sounds like it is from a more liberal point of view–don’t perpetuate false opinions about another culture. Unlike Huck Finn’s critical attitude toward racism, which makes its linguistic choices understandable as devices to illustrate a problem, Skippyjon Jones just contains (from my understanding) a crudely stereotyped Mexican character with no self-awareness for how wrong it is to do so. Does that mean banning it is a good idea? I’m really against the idea of banning any book, but is it okay to try and keep certain books away from kids who don’t yet have the critical thinking skills or world experience to realize that their depictions are wrong and unkind? I really don’t know.

This is one of those books that I would be inclined to not necessarily ban, but to remove from circulation in a school library. If parents want to find it elsewhere and read it to their kids, that’s their prerogative, but in a school setting, it could be construed as encouraging bad behavior or bullying. And with all the difficulties children of Mexican descent have been facing in America lately (some kids on playgrounds have taken to echoing Trump’s derogatory “build a wall” rhetoric at their peers), I can’t say it is a bad idea to keep this from feeding the flames.

– One of the more interesting inclusions on lists of challenged/banned books is Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. In case you’ve been living under a rock the past three years, the Netflix series based on this book got in a lot of hot water over its graphic depictions of suicide and rape, especially since consulting psychological professionals for the show EXPLICITLY SAID that a graphic suicide scene could have a profoundly negative effect on viewers with existing mental health difficulties…and the producers ignored those warnings. The thing is, that book has been around for over a decade, and I’ve only seen it cropping up on top-10-most-challenged-titles lists the past couple years; the only time it was on the top 10 before 2017 was in 2012. Did the Netflix series bring new attention to this book? And, given how different the book and the show are, are the criticisms valid?

Note that the Netflix series is promoted on the book cover. Does that mean it endorses the show’s interpretation?

The reasons for it being challenged are usually pretty vague, just that it talks about suicide–but plenty of books do that. Some might argue that it glorifies the idea of the “revenge suicide,” because it shows a girl getting to call out all those who hurt her and led to her ultimate suicide. And in the show, you really do get to see the characters get hit by massive guilt. But in the book, if my memory serves, you see very little of that. The book is really just about Clay, the boy who didn’t do anything wrong, who is overcome with grief about what he didn’t know. You don’t see the others get punished; you just hear about a girl’s pain and see how much her suicide hurt someone else, too. It doesn’t glorify things.

I still understand the desire to keep books about suicide out of the hands of young and potentially vulnerable readers, but unfortunately, depression is a very real problem in today’s youth, and we can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. And if we don’t let kids read literature about problems they face, then a) they may believe they are alone in their struggles; b) they may seek out works on their own and find much worse and more triggering content, especially on the internet; c) those who do not struggle may not have a good way to understand the experiences of their peers; and d) they may not get wider or outside perspectives on what outcomes their actions and situations can lead to, or what help is available.

Books with sexual content. Oh boy. I’m especially thinking of titles like A Court of Thorns and Roses, which is frequently categorized as Young Adult even though it is most DEFINITELY NOT. The books in that series are filled with explicit, detailed sex scenes that are more about their erotic value than about any sort of character development or plot furtherment. It is more adult content. Yes, teens have sex, but to read about it in this style, especially as it depicts a lot of pretty rough sex (I mean, there are faeries involved, so it can get kind of animalistic) is probably not ideal. I was chatting with some high school students (seniors, I think) in a bookstore a month or two ago, and a few of them were talking about the series. One said that she read it in eighth grade and felt like that was definitely too young for it. Another read it halfway through high school and still felt like that was too young. All of them were mortified by the idea of some 12- or 13-year-old picking it up and reading it because, you know, it’s in the teen section. The bookstore we were in had the third book displayed on a stand alongside Percy Jackson, Miss Peregrine’s, and Harry Potter. One of these things is not like the others…

Listen. There are mature teens who could definitely read a book like this. They can go ahead and read it. I don’t know whether any schools or libraries have tried to ban this one specifically, but they have tried to ban far less explicit books for their sexual content, so there’s a solid chance this one has been targeted as well. Personally, I think that’s a step too far. But dammit, you need to shelve these things properly so people know what they are getting into! And again, as far as school libraries, I’ve seen a few high schools carry it (in my time substitute teaching), but there is a world of growth that happens between freshman year and senior year. I can’t think of any freshman I knew or know, myself included, who that series would be appropriate for just from a maturity standpoint.

Plus, if it is in a school library, you can bet there will be parents who find out it’s in there and pitch a hissy fit over its presence. “Not in my good Christian nation!” and all that nonsense. From a liability standpoint…maybe it is in the best interest of schools to leave those books at the local library, or maybe for only teachers of upper-level classes to suggest it to students (especially reluctant readers, since it is quite popular, even if I personally don’t think it’s anything special). Don’t get rid of it, but handle it responsibly.

Banning classics: really? What’s the point? They’ve been around for so long, many of them are cultural touchstones. People know what happens. You really think it will make a difference if you say it should be pulled from the shelves? Ha. Banning titles can also increase their taboo-appeal, so, you know, probably not an effective strategy.

The Hate U Give. I’m so annoyed that people keep trying to ban this one for being “anti-cop.” If that’s the message you leave the book with, then either you went in with a preconceived idea of what it was about and deliberaty misread things, or you weren’t paying attention. The book is not against cops. Heck, Starr’s uncle is a cop SPECIFICALLY for the purpose of showing that there are plenty of good cops out there. He speaks on behalf of other officers he works with who are also genuinely good people who want justice. And even for the cops who are not-good, the book doesn’t condemn them so much as it condemns systemic racism that has penetrated our justice system and led to racist behaviors–often unconscious ones–by those in power. The problem is not the police themselves, and the book makes that clear. The problem is the system. And if that still makes you angry, if you still think that is false…well, there are plenty of statistics that say otherwise.

If schools can have the Bible (though in 2015, the Bible actually made the top 10 most-challenged list for “religious viewpoint” lol), or political documents, or the Communist Manifesto, or nihilist philosophy books, then they can have books (fictional ones, might I add!) about current social issues and people’s beliefs on them. Let people read and form their own opinions. Don’t ban a book just because it contains material that might slightly go against your personal convictions. Just don’t read it yourself if it’s that big of a deal to you. Or better yet, maybe you SHOULD read it to gain insight on an opposing viewpoint. You could learn something.

– The people who want to ban books for bad language? Fuck off. You really think teens haven’t heard that shit before? If they’ve seen a PG-13 movie, they’ve probably heard it. If they have classmates, they’ve probably heard it. If they listen to popular music (pop, rock, rap…genre doesn’t matter, they all do it), they’ve almost certainly heard it. Heck, they’ve probably heard it from YOU at some point! Seriously, get over yourself. And if you’re using allegations of bad language to mask your real objection, perhaps to a controversial depiction of something, then shame on you.

Okay, that’s all for now. Sorry that those last points were kind of a rant; hopefully it didn’t put anybody off too much. I try to avoid being overly political in my reviews, unless the subject matter specifically calls for it, but I hate that people are using flimsy rhetoric, especially when they’re using trumped-up charges to shut down books that they don’t agree with on other grounds.

What do you guys think? Agree or disagree with any of my opinions? Have some of your own ~hot tea~ on banned books? Let me know in the comments–I’m always down for a good discussion.

As always,

Kathryn (“K-Specks”)

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Thursday: Banned Books Week edition!

  1. Margaret @ Weird Zeal September 28, 2019 / 2:47 pm

    Such an interesting discussion, and something that I think tends to be skated over in conversations about banned books. I’m pretty firmly against banning books in general, but I do think it’s important to at least be mindful about the content in books and whose hands we’re putting them into. I work at a bookstore and have multiple times had young teenagers buying ACOTAR books, possibly without even knowing about the more, uh, mature content. And books that contain racial stereotypes/slurs REALLY should be accompanied by conversations about why those things aren’t okay, especially in kids books. Anyways, really interesting discussion, I enjoyed reading this! 😊

    Like

  2. germainehan October 3, 2019 / 5:46 am

    This was a really interesting post. I definitely feel the same about ACOTAR, because it’s marketed towards 13 year olds and that’s just not cool if they’re not ready for that. Also hasn’t The Giver been banned in a lot of places as well?

    Like

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