Why I Let My Children Read Banned Books

Banned Books Week was last month, one of my favorite weeks to proclaim that yes, I read banned books, and you can pry that “forbidden” book out of my cold, dead hands…or just wait until I finish reading it. Then chances are I’ll hand it over to you and try to convince you to read it, too.

That goes without saying if you’re a grown-up, but what if you’re a kid? Either a teen of an age where I expect you to be engaged with the world, or a child mature enough that I think you might enjoy the book I just finished. Heck—Harry Potter is on more banned books lists than I care to count. If you’re in those categories, all’s fair. But what if you’re a young child? What then? Here’s what I really want to know: do you let your children read banned books?

My mom’s a bit of a mad genius when it comes to psychology, so I’m not sure if the fact that her children read banned books was slyly encouraged, or if it was accidental. But I definitely grew up without any reading restrictions. For example: I found what my friend’s mom called “bodice rippers” while perusing the community library at my gram’s senior living center when I was 12. I rolled right through the book—a Julie Garwood, if I recall—and handed it to my sister. She would have been 8. Did my mom know? Sure she did! Her parenting style might have been described as a bit chaotic (she had four kids, an untold number of cousins, and a few of our friends, it seemed, under her control at any one time), but she kept pretty good tabs on what we were reading. For one thing, she knew more than she let on. For another: she asked. And because we never met with any shrieking, gasps, confiscation, punishment, or other negative feedback, we never hesitated to ‘fess up.

for colored girls who have considered suicideAfter we told Mum what we were reading, oftentimes she would pick up the book and read it herself. There were plenty of times she asked if we had questions, or struggled to conceal her reactions to half of what we talked about, like the time I had no shame squicking out over Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book in elementary school; or listened even when she didn’t know what to say, like when I raged with despair over for colored girls who have considered suicide. My mom just let us read what we wanted. Even more importantly, she talked to us about our reading choices. The whole point of Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book was that the kids in the story needed a community with whom they could discuss their book and their questions—and they didn’t have that. Even when Mum didn’t agree with what I was reading (hello Christopher Pike, Stephen King, and anything scary), she would still talk to me about my reading life. You will never convince me that doesn’t have some correlation to me being a confident woman who has the capabilities to face any number of challenges.

Now I’m the mom. My daughters are 11 and 13. I have always let my children read banned books—in fact, I read it to them! My youngest, if she gets to choose, will still only read comics and graphic novels. I struggled with that for awhile. But you know what—she’s reading, and I won’t make rules about that. She read Raina Telgemeier’s Drama when she was in 2nd grade. And then we talked about it. My 13-year-old read E.K. Johnston’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear in which the high school protagonist is raped at cheer camp and struggles with anxiety and depression throughout the rest of her senior year. I talked with both of my daughters about the choices they could soon face (like peer pressure and drinking) and how to handle those situations if—God forbid—they arise. You see, I think reading gives us a practice space to try out different endings (and middles, too) before we have to face them in the “real” world. By watering down the range of material we have to draw from, I think you’re handicapping our chances to get it right. And what’s “right” for you might not be “right” for me, or for my family.

Because that’s really what reading (lots of things, actually) should be about—personal choice. We don’t need absolutes. We live in a great, big, huge, mind-boggling plurality. As I said, what’s right for my family might not be right for yours. And that’s okay. I might love this banned book! It might rot my brain. Who knows?! Who cares?! It’s not harming your family if my daughter reads Persepolis, or if we read it together. But I do respect your right to ask she not share it with your son. I won’t even make (much of) a fuss. I can’t promise to hide her copies of Lumberjanes when they have playdates at my house…unless you ask me to. But I’m going to be honest why, and if he’s anything like I was at that age, he’s going to track down a copy the moment you forbid it.

I just don’t get denying a curious mind access to information and stories and realms where we get do-overs and safe(er) arenas to try things out.

It’s one of the glories of literature. Why limit that experience?

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