Back in 2002 and 2003, I spent several of the happiest months of my life working in a book store. Part of what I loved the most about that job was helping people navigate the packed shelves of fiction, non-fiction, “True Crime,” history, mysteries, biographes and self-help screeds to find their perfect books, the volumes they most needed in their lives.
My most interesting customers, however, were children. There is a huge, yawning chasm between what children want to read and what adults want them to want to read. The whole urge to ban books is rooted in a seemingly indefatigable human need to “protect” children from information that adults find upsetting, a need that is ultimately doomed to fail again and again and again. Why? Because kids love darkness.
Listen, grownups, this is important: You can wave as many copies of The Velveteen Rabbit and Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women as you want at your sons and daughters, but Captain Underpants, The Hunger Games and the A Series of Unfortunate Events series (all books that have made the list of the most commonly challenged books in the U.S.) are going to win every time.
For whatever reasons, kids are fascinated by death, suffering and evil. You can see it in the classic fairy tales that are often our children’s first introductions to narrative stories — they’re filled with cruel stepsisters and evil stepmothers, poisoned apples and cut-out deer hearts, witches and goblins and evil, baby-stealing elves.
Parents (usually mothers) would come to the bookstore information desk and say, “I can’t get him to read” about their young sons. Hand them Diary of a Wimpy Kid — which has been banned from many schools for its sarcasm, cynicism and failure to portray all adults, including teachers and parents, in a uniformly flattering manner — and they’d be back in a couple of days to buy every volume of the series.
Similarly, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy turned several non-reading teens into obsessive bookworms who gobbled up each volume and asked for more. Pullman is the second-most banned author in the U.S. (Madeleine L’Engle is at the top) because of his books’ particularly unsparing portrayal of the Catholic Church.
It’s not that kids don’t want to read, it’s that they don’t want to read what you want them to read.
Madeleine L’Engle’s Newberry Award-winning classic A Wrinkle in Time was passed over by multiple publishers, not just because it was a science fiction-ish tale with a female protagonist, but because it dealt with the question of evil, and how evil might manifest itself in everyday authority figures like school principals.
The book still faces bans today, and was a particular thorn in the side of the late televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose ministry wanted to see it banned because its portrayal of the struggle between good and evil made no mention of God, Jesus Christ or Satan.
My eleven-year-old self couldn’t get enough Stephen King. I read his apocalyptic plague novel The Stand when I should have been paying attention to my sixth grade algebra teacher, but I could hardly tear myself away from the book’s grim, matter-of-fact depiction of a super-plague that wiped out 94 percent of the population.
“What if this really happened?” I asked myself in delighted horror. “What would I do if this was real?”
Ultimately, I think that’s what young readers really enjoy most about reading what adults consider to be horrifically dark matters: in their (and our) hearts and imaginations, they’re asking what they would do if this were real. It forms a kind of mental rehearsal for the real monsters and major crises that everyone will ultimately, inevitably face in life.
And finally, I would just like to remind every adult reading this about all the times their parents told them not to do something when they were a kid. Remember? Don’t touch Daddy’s power-sander, don’t ride your bike in the street, don’t read these books Mommy keeps on the high shelf? Remember? What was the first thing you did when your parents’ backs were turned?
That, ultimately, is why any and all attempts to ban and censor books are going to fail. Kids are curious, and telling them not to do something is only going to add to the frisson of excitement they feel when they defy you and do it anyway.
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