Book bans reflect outdated beliefs about how children read

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Banned Books Week, an annual event that teachers and librarians across the United States mark with a combination of distress and defiance, is back. The theme for this year’s event, which will take place from September 18-24, is “Books Unite Us. Censorship divides us.

This is part of regular large-scale efforts to remove allegedly controversial or inappropriate reading materials from libraries and schools. These days, the small groups of parents who traditionally lead these efforts are joined by politicians who are drafting legislation that would ban or criminalize the making of controversial books available to children.

I teach a class on banned books at the University of Southern California, so I’m prone to noticing headlines on the subject, but that’s not just a perception bias. The American Library Association reports that in 2021, it tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and college materials, targeting a total of 1,597 books. This is the highest number of attempted book bans since tracking began more than 20 years ago. This year is on track to surpass the 2021 record with 681 challenges as of August 31, 2022.

Increasingly, bans have targeted books written by or featuring LGBTQ people and people of color. But perennial classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “Grapes of Wrath” have also been challenged by parents concerned about their racist language and the marginalization of black characters.

“Book banning doesn’t fit neatly into the rubrics of left-wing and right-wing politics,” recalls Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

What unites these challenges is a clear desire to protect young readers from dangerous content. But attempts to ban books are often driven by misconceptions about how children consume and process literature.

how children read

Many adults assume that exposure to particular literary content will invariably produce particular effects.

Christian author and publisher David Kopp acknowledged this when addressing the controversy surrounding the 1989 children’s book “Heather Has Two Moms.”

“[T]he deepest dilemma for many Christians who oppose this book is often not theological, but emotional. It has to do with what we fear,” he wrote on the religious website BeliefNet in 2001. “We fear that our children will be indoctrinated in some way. We fear that they will come to see homosexuality as normal and then…the part that we don’t say…will become one.

Kopp found this fear “absurd”. He insisted that a “book, well-intentioned or not, is not likely to change our child’s sexual orientation”.

Many scholars would agree. Research shows that children’s reading experiences are complex and unpredictable. As researcher Christine Jenkins explains in an article on censorship and young readers, “Readers respond to and are affected by texts in a way specific to each reader in the context of a specific time and place. “.

Simply put, children co-create their own reading experiences. Their interpretation of the books is informed by their personal and cultural histories, and these interpretations may change over time or as readers encounter the same stories in different contexts.

Neither the supposedly healthy nor the supposedly dangerous effects of children’s reading can therefore be taken for granted. Children are not just empty vessels waiting to be filled with the messages and images of a text, despite how adults tend to portray young readers as helpless in the grip of the stories they consume.

Wall Street Journal contributor Meghan Cox Gurdon argued that parents should be ever vigilant against books that would “bulldoze the rudeness”. [and] misery in the lives of their children. Earlier this year, an Ohio school board vice president accused Jason Tharp, author of “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn,” of “pushing LGBTQ ideas on our most vulnerable students.”

Who are the children

Such perceptions reflect pervasive stories that American society tells about children and the nature of childhood. These stories are the focus of an undergraduate course I teach called “Boys and Girls Gone Wild,” in which we explore themes of childhood innocence and deviance through texts such as “ Lord of the Flies”, “When They See Us” and “The Virgin Suicides.

On the first day, I ask students to brainstorm common traits in children. They frequently choose words like “innocent”, “pure” and “naive” – ​​although babysitters and students with younger siblings are more likely to acknowledge that children can also be “mischievous” and ” strange”.

My students are usually surprised to learn that the Western notion of innocent children in need of protection is a relatively recent idea, born out of the economic and social changes of the 17th century.

English philosopher John Locke’s idea in the late 17th century that humans are born as “tabulae rasae”, or blank slates, has had an incalculable influence. The child without innate features must be carefully molded. Thus, “childhood has become a time of intense governance and control,” according to researcher Alyson Miller.

Some groups held differing opinions, such as the Evangelical Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries, who believed that children were born imbued with original sin. But the narrative of the inherently pure and helpless child has come to shape fields as diverse as biology and political theory.

Perhaps no discipline has been influenced so powerfully as the closely related fields of literature and education.

The value of “dangerous” books

Book bans are gaining ground in cultures that imagine themselves maintaining a barrier between the purity of children and the corruption of the world.

But that effort can have unintended consequences, argue scholars like Kerry H. Robinson. In her 2013 book on sexuality and censorship, she writes that “regulating children’s access to important knowledge…has undermined their development as competent, well-informed, critical-thinking young citizens and ethics”.

Difficult book debates would play out differently if participants viewed young child readers as active participants in knowledge discovery and creation.

Jason Reynolds, the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Children’s Literature and author of the highly targeted “All American Boys,” which portrays a racist policeman, offers a different — and, I would argue, healthier — way to frame the children’s report reading.

“There’s no better place for a young person to engage and wrestle with ideas that may or may not be their own than in a book,” he told CNN for an in-depth report from June. 2022 on the book ban in America. “These stories are meant to be playgrounds for ideas, playgrounds for debate and discourse. Books don’t brainwash. They represent ideas.

For Reynolds and the other authors, librarians, readers, parents and educators commemorating Banned Books Week 2022, adults have a right to disagree with these ideas. But rather than fearing the “uncomfortable conversations young people bring home,” adults can actively encourage them.

“If adults are doing their job,” says Reynolds, the discomfort that often accompanies growing up “doesn’t have to feel like a danger.”

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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