On dangerous books
A school district in Coeur d’Alene, a town in northern Idaho, is currently considering removing Of Mice and Men from its ninth grade curriculum. Members of the curriculum review committee have cited several reasons: the book contains profanity, the plot is “too dark,” and the book is “neither a quality story nor a page turner.”
Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that the most vocal review board member, Mary Jo Finney, is challenging the status of an American classic without any apparent literary credentials. She’s a taxpayer, a mom, and a school board member, and she has a right to express her opinion. Mostly, she seems to feel that teenagers should not be exposed to crudity and forced to read profanities out loud in class. (Also, one assumes she finds the dead cheating wife distasteful, though this is never mentioned.)
She’s not alone. Concerned parents in the Highland Park Independent School District in Texas made national news last year when they tried to remove seven books from the curriculum for similar reasons. Among those banned were Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which depicts alcoholism and homelessness, and The Art of Racing in the Rain, which contains a brief sex scene as viewed by a dog. A conservative parent will argue that these things threaten “family values” — as contemporary fiction often does. Parents, understandably, may not want their children exposed to these things in a classroom.
I was perhaps the most sheltered and bookish ninth grader in the world. I still played with Barbies, or I wanted to. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t curse. I didn’t know any curse words. I didn’t know there were people my age drinking, let alone using recreational drugs (and selling them, as it turned out, out of the locker next to mine). I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 22, with the exception of one young man who exuberantly kissed me on the cheek in the middle of my junior-year journalism class and sent me into a whirlwind of embarrassment and unexpected pride (was it any wonder I became a reporter?).
In ninth grade, I read Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, Go Ask Alice and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. All books one could consider boring, dangerous, or profane. But they brought a depth and richness to my life and understanding of the human experience that I would not have found anywhere else. Alice taught me that addiction is serious and tragic; Huck Finn learned about the importance of every human life so I could take it for granted. Holden Caulfield convinced me that I never, ever wanted to fail out of school. I read books on cutting, on anorexia, books in which women had abortions. I read these books and then I started asking questions about right and wrong, good and bad.
Did sex scenes in books make me uncomfortable? You betcha. Did I learn the difference between consensual sex and rape from books? Yes, I did. Did I hate depictions of domestic abuse and violence? Of course. Did I learn from books that this behavior was wrong? Yes, because I had never encountered it in real life so far.
Parents want to protect their children. It’s laudable and wonderful and imminently understandable. But parents should also want to equip their children for life. We should be pushing them learn about these issues from books, where they can start conversations and learn about big, dark issues while at a safe distances. Should their first exposure to anorexia be when a friend stops eating? Should their first exposure to sexual violence be firsthand, with the risk that they won’t realize it’s not normal?
Let children learn about heartache from books before they are directly impacted. Let books teach them that there are things in life that must be cursed about, because there is no other way to express the anguish people are capable of feeling.
Because our children will experience these things in their lives. They will experience, directly or indirectly, difficult decisions, hopelessness, an unplanned pregnancy, domestic or sexual abuse, an addiction or an eating disorder. When they encounter these issues, something they’ve read will resonate deep within them and let them know it’s okay, that they are not alone, that they are experiencing another part of the human story, and that someone out there knows what they are feeling.
And, inspired by that vicarious experience, they will be able to rise up and overcome. Don’t strip them of that.
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