Is Banning Books Ever Okay?

I’d like to write about an issue which can have serious consequences to the development of children and adolescents: the banning of books in schools and libraries.

The banning of books is a contentious topic, and the reasons behind the bans vary from religion to simple disapproval. Even mainstream successes such as Harry Potter have not been immune to this controversy. Themes of magic combined with themes of growing up have drawn negative attention, particularly from religious zealots who want to protect children. Anything that can be seen to be damaging or highly influential has attracted this backlash. In the United States, the banning of books appears to have become almost like an epidemic. What once began as legitimate religious concern has become a way for parents to control the material their child can access?

Let’s take a look at YA. Young Adult literature is, for many teenagers, the doorway between childhood and becoming an adult. YA books touch on topics that neither children’s nor adult’s books touch. They help teens grappling with questions of identity, belonging and sexuality discover their place in society. It isn’t any wonder that these topics are considered controversial, resulting in bans around the world. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was banned for several reasons ranging from profanity to the perceived messages within the novel. An Oklahoma English teacher was fired for assigning the novel to his 11th-grade class (he appealed and was given his job back, but was banned from teaching the book). The very fact that his novel was being censored caused Salinger a great deal of unhappiness. A huge reason for the banning of this novel, was Mark David Chapman – for those who don’t know, he was the man who shot and killed John Lennon of The Beatles – who blamed the book for his crime.  Are parents actually terrified that their precious little angels will read one book and become murderers? I mean, sure we say books have changed our whole way of life, but not to that extent. Books do not have complete control over us … I read the Narnia series many (and here read many, many, many) times as a child and have managed to avoid living a religious life. I also read Twilight once upon a time, and let me tell you I have no desire to meet a sparkly vampire, fall in love, etc. We still have choices and logic and morals, we can all still choose between wrong and right. Books keep us thinking - good or bad.

This brings me to ask you if there is ever a good reason to ban a book. With the right context, surely any book can be read without causing damage. Perhaps the problem is not in the books themselves, but in the environments in which they are acquired and absorbed?  

In an article in the New York Times back when Harry Potter was in its early days, Judy Blume (who has experienced the banning of her own books) wrote that “the real danger is not in the books, but in laughing off those who would ban them”; teachers and librarians face the wrath of angry parents if they do not immediately comply. Parents now argue for the removal of any book they take a dislike to, regardless of its educational worth. Books like Blume’s Forever (a coming of age novel about first love, sex, and loss of innocence) which has taught many teenagers things they were afraid to ask adults, has been banned in many schools, frowned on for describing sex in detail. Forever was not afraid to detail what sex looked like in a realistic way, decades before Lena Dunham’s Girls. I read the novel when I was pretty young, and let me tell you it taught me things I would never have known to ask at that age, things I don’t remember even being taught at school since.  

And while we’re on the topic of sex, John Green’s Looking for Alaska was banned in schools across America despite its religious themes for sexual content, offensive language, and underage drinking – something teenagers worldwide are experiencing regardless of what books sit on their shelves.  Looking for Alaska was in fact 2015’s most complained about book according to a survey by the American Library Association (ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey, might I add).  

Which leads me to the point I have been trying to make: on his Youtube channel, Green hit back against the people challenging his book, saying that “text is meaningless without context”, a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. With the right context, and in the right setting, any literature can be educational – even Mein Kampf can become an important historical text if read in a history classroom. And while we are on that subject, Nazi’s burned books they didn’t agree with, while this may not be quite as extreme, I cannot help but draw parallels with this.

And so to end my little rant, let me leave you with an adaptation of a well-worn statement about guns: books aren’t the problem, people are the problem, and the interpretations and preconceived notions they choose to bring to everything they read.

Image sourced via creative commons

Sarah Ambrose

Sarah works in publishing and can often be found with a good YA book in hand. She co-runs the Instagram page @your_reality_is_an_illusion which promotes and reviews books, and is a freelance editor. You can find her at: SarahNicoleEditorial