As I sat down to write a column about Mother's Day, I noticed a news story about a nearby school district which recently banned "Perks Of Being A Wallflower" from its junior high school. In a 4-2 vote, school board members of Glen Ellyn School District 41 voted to reject a reconsideration committee's recommendation to allow the book continue to be available to 8th grade students. The book was removed from a literacy classroom collection after the parents of one- one- 8th grade student at Hadley Junior High complained to the district that the book was inappropriate.
Chicago Tribune reporter Quan Truong summed up the remarks of the 8th grade teachers to the school board in 10 words that should be emblazoned across the front of every library. "The teachers urged the board to consider the freedom of speech and support the pursuit of knowledge."
Consider the freedom of speech and support the pursuit of knowledge.
Anyone who paid even a smidgeon of attention in a 10th grade social studies class knows that restricting access to knowledge has been used by governments and religious institutions throughout recorded history to suppress populations. Today, in an interconnected world with instant access to information, some governments restrict access to the internet and, yes, ban books.
The American Library Association (ALA) reported that 464 challenges were made in 2012 to have books removed from libraries. According to the ALA, "A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. We estimate that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported."
What motivates people to act to remove books from library shelves and school reading lists? I imagine they think they are protecting their children or community from unpleasant or inappropriate ideas or images. Parents who do this are, I've always thought, forgetting the basic tenets of adolescence: Nothing is sweeter than the forbidden.
Of course there are books that are appropriate for a high school senior that I wouldn't want a 6th grader reading. It is important to provide children with reading material that is age appropriate. Defining just exactly what that means is one of the greatest responsibilities we have as parents and teachers.
Our schools have curriculum specialists, parent committees, teachers and administrators who help us make those choices. As a parent who lives just a few miles from Glen Ellyn and who has had three children go through the public schools, I've never found any of the school reading choices or library selections to be inappropriate. And as a parent, we can always opt out of allowing our children to read what is on any reading list.
We can't keep knowledge from our children, especially in these Days of Wikipedia.
My mother, whose first job out of college was as a librarian, is one of the smartest people I know. She carefully navigated her book devouring and inquisitive children through levels of age-appropriate books. The only restriction I remember her putting on my reading was to tell me that if I could pull it out of the bookcase without having to get a chair to reach it, I could read it. I remember looking at those upper shelves with longing and exasperation.
She never said no, just not yet.
She also often took us to the library and, when we'd read through the juvenile section (it was a small library) allowed us to check out books from the adult section only if she'd read them first. That parenting model followed me and when my own children hit junior high, I read every book- a new batch of young adult fiction authors!- before they read them.
When I was growing up in the Bible Belt South, book challenges and bannings were a dime a dozen. My mother used to say, when yet another church or group would try to ban a book in the local schools, that she could teach a class on the Bible that would have parents asking for the Bible to be banned. (My mother, incidentally, is a devout Christian.)
How can you know what you believe, she told me as I read my way up to the top shelves of our bookcases at home, if you don't have all the facts? How can you argue your opinion if you don't know what others think? I remember more than a few times when I was growing up when she told me that I didn't know enough to have an opinion, and then promptly pulled a book from a shelf for me to read to fill in those blanks.
Consider the freedom of speech and pursuit of knowledge.
Well, now, I guess I wrote a column for Mother's Day, after all.
Thanks, Mom, for teaching me to love learning for the sake of learning, for having a home filled with books, for instilling in me an abiding distaste of censorship and the love of a good argument.