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In Defense of Book Banning

Book banning has been defined down to mean making responsible decisions about what reading material is age-appropriate for school children.


One of the enduring mysteries of my life is how I ended up raising two young children. Near as I can tell, the answer involves marriage and some basic biology, but beyond that, my qualifications for the job seem a bit hazy. Any accumulated wisdom from my own childhood begins and ends with thanking God I was raised in an era prior to ubiquitous camera phones. Otherwise, all my friends and I would be rotting in jail cells from here to Tijuana and back.

So then, it was no small victory when I was elected to serve on the board of the Lutheran school that my children attend. The school has a strong religious emphasis, a classical education curriculum and is located in the D.C. suburbs. The parents who send their kids to this school are well-educated and accomplished professionals who are actively interested in their children’s education. I may have no choice but to be responsible for my progeny, but the fact that other parents entrust me to guide the inchoate minds of their children suggests I must be doing something right.

Looking back on my rebellious childhood, this is not how I thought things would turn out. I thought I’d be a famous author by now, living a life of casual debauchery in between hours spent ruminating at Parisian cafes. The Portrait of the Artist as a School Board Member is not a chapter of my life I thought I would end up writing. But here I am, hurtling toward middle age and volunteering my Thursday nights to hammer out a reasonable time line for accreditation procedures. I am, however, happy to report that dreams of my youth have not been entirely unrealized. I remained uncompromising enough that I did end up a journalist by trade, and I like to think my lifelong obsession with reading and writing on all manner of subjects, as well as generally crusading against injustice, makes me well-suited to oversee elementary school instruction.

It turns out that my responsibilities as a father and school board member are seemingly at odds with my vocation as a writer in a significant respect: I am someone who bans books. The younger me would be horrified by this turn of events, but then again, the younger me was an idiot who knew nothing about responsibility or children.

The younger me would be horrified by this turn of events, but then again, the younger me was an idiot who knew nothing about responsibility or children.

I admit I was reflexively surprised to learn that my children’s school confiscates any questionable reading material that students might possess. Then again, this is exactly why I send my kids to a private religious school. With the way that public schools are slaloming toward Gomorrah, it is astonishing that any student learns to read. It’s far too much to expect that government schools should take the next necessary step and develop a responsible framework examining how what students read might complement their moral development, to say nothing of the fact contemporary America is so dysfunctional such conversations in public schools tend to deploy platoons of lawyers.

And so we have reached a state of affairs where “book banning” has been defined down to mean “making responsible decisions about what reading material is edifying and and age-appropriate for school children.” With great hyperbole, every fall the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week — a typical ALA press release is headlined “Book banning alive and well in the U.S.”

Except that it’s not. You might recall that back in 2008 a certain former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, was vilified for inquiring about removing two objectionable books from the local library. This was gleefully singled out as proof Sarah Palin was a backwards rube, but the fact of the matter is that schools and public libraries remove books from their shelves all the time. “Tintin and the Congo” from the venerable children’s comic series has been yanked from many a library because it has some unfortunate racial tropes leftover from the heyday of Belgium’s colonial period when it was written. Is it censorship that you’re unable to go to your local taxpayer-funded branch and check out a copy of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”? For better or for worse, these books are still widely available. Your local community has simply decided that finite public resources are not going to be spent disseminating them. Judgments are made all the time about what goes on shelves for both practical and moral reasons. This is not book banning.

If you read the fine print at the ALA, the idea that book banning is “alive and well” is exposed for the lie that it really is. Every year, the “Office for Intellectual Freedom” – the grandiosely named division of the ALA charged with patrolling the DMZ between civilization and chaos – celebrates Banned Books week by publishing a list of “Frequently Challenged Books.” Again, it’s a list of books that are neither banned or even necessarily removed from shelves, merely “challenged” by people from the community for one reason or another. Yes, many of these reasons are stupid. From time to time a legitimately classic work of fiction ends up on the list. But it’s telling that such books are as likely to be challenged for politically correct reasons as they are for violating narrow ideas about traditional morality. In 2011, “To Kill a Mockingbird” made the list, and according to the ALA, people objected due to “offensive language [and] racism” despite the obviously righteous context.

Aside from being an awkward reminder that Banned Books Week isn’t really about books being banned, the list of frequently challenged books ultimately serves to highlight how the “Young Adult fiction” market has become a cesspool. The state of kids publishing is such that it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about what agenda-driven and/or prurient content they’re peddling. As it turns out, the overwhelming majority of books cropping up on the ALA’s most challenged list are books written for kids that are deemed age inappropriate for one reason or another. This includes pretty heavy doses of explicit sex and other adult themes such as drug abuse. It would be one thing if all these books were the lexical equivalent of after school specials, but salaciousness sells.

An educator recently showed me a book that a junior high student was reading. It was one of the “Pretty Little Liars” novels, which spawned a show that airs on the ABC Family network. Without knowing much beyond that, I’d venture that most parents would think that this means it’s probably a safe choice for kids. The woman who took the book from the student explained that she flipped to a page at random and found two teenage girls engaged in some pretty hot and heavy lesbian action. I saw the passage in question, and as an adult heterosexual male I am shamefully well-suited to tell you that the titillation factor far outweighed any redeeming qualities. Furthering my bona fides on this subject, one of my undergrad instructors assigned me “Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit,” the, uh, seminal lesbian sexual awakening novel, which I submit as proof that such themes can be written about in way that is sensitive, literary, and about as exciting as an Ikea instruction manual.

This is not to suggest that controversial topics should be avoided by those who write books for kids. But far too often the explicit nature of the work is the selling point. As a colleague of mine has noted, ABC Family is pretty much the go-to network if you’re looking for shows marketed to teenagers about oral sex and silly portrayals of lesbian experimentation. We’ve long been coming to terms with a popular culture that exposes children to explicit content, but marketing it as family friendly is an especially brazen new trend. Even iconic childhood characters are being exploited for shock value. Remember Archie comics? They’re kind of lame and strangely beloved, and they’ve put many preteens on a glide path to understanding what healthy, if heavily sanitized, teenage tomfoolery and courtship should look like. It was probably inevitable that Archie would change with the times, but I don’t think anyone thought the comic needed to become a statement about The Way We Live Now, where “we” is defined as some narrow subset of the urban creative class. In 2012, the gang in Riverdale confronted an occupy protest and attended a gay marriage. Of course, the gay marriage issue of Archie flew off the shelves, so it’s hard to tell whether the publisher is just capitalizing on the novelty to make a quick buck or actively trying to redefine cultural norms. But looked at over a long enough time horizon, the former will accomplish the latter. As for the future of Archie comics, well, big plans are in store:

Before becoming a staff writer for TV shows like Big Love and Glee, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa made a name for himself as a playwright, starting with a play called Weird Comic Book Fantasy that imagined classic comic-book character Archie Andrews coming out of the closet. He’s since gone on to write actual Archie comics in the form of the extraordinary Afterlife With Archie horror series, and earlier today, Aguirre-Sacasa was named Archie Comics’ new Chief Creative Officer, a position that “will be exploring the potential to take Archie’s Pals and Gals outside of comics and into different media.” One of Aguirre-Sacasa’s first moves as CCO is recruiting Girls creator Lena Dunham to write a four-part story…

Yet, many parents still don’t seem to grasp that the problem of needlessly confrontational and transgressive children’s entertainment has migrated to books. And it’s really egregious. In 2005, Simon and Schuster published a book called “Rainbow Party” that, according to Publishers Weekly, is appropriate for ages 14 and up. Before I explain what a rainbow party is, let me preemptively apologize. A rainbow party is a party where teenagers get together and all the girls put on different shades of bright lipstick. Once all the different guys and girls at the party are done living gland to mouth, the various colors left on the males’ members are said to resemble… well, you get the idea. You’d be forgiven for believing this absurdity is the result of an editor at one of New York’s biggest publishing houses trying to win a bet about what he could get away with marketing to kids. But no, we’re told this is really an educational and cautionary tale about a gonorrhea outbreak among the sophomore class.

“We knew it would be controversial,” the author Paul Ruditis told the New York Times. “But everyone involved felt it was an issue worth exploring in a fictional setting. And I don’t think anyone who reads the book could come out wanting to have a rainbow party.” That’s good to know the author thinks no one who reads the book would want to have a rainbow party, because there’s no documented evidence of any teenagers anywhere having a rainbow party despite Ruditis’ suggestion. “One day we have never heard of rainbow parties and then suddenly they are everywhere, feeding on adults’ fears that morally bankrupt sexuality among younger teens is rampant, despite any actual evidence, as well as evidence to the contrary,” observed Dr. Deborah Tolman, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University. That’s right. Someone who studies sexual behavior in San Francisco thinks that this book is needlessly provocative. Alas, we can safely assume the article about the ginned-up controversy in the New York Times sold a few copies nonetheless.

Maybe this is crazy, but I’m beginning to suspect young adult fiction authors don’t always have the best interests of your kids at heart. As a matter of branding, even the term “young adult fiction” is dishonest. The target market isn’t comprised of “young adults” in any legal or cultural sense, but the phrase is a bit of patronizing flattery designed to appeal to kids who are naturally beginning to question authority. Questions about the need for parental authority aren’t really much of a concern for our new breed of edgy children’s authors. If anything, they are quite outspoken about the slings and arrows they suffer at the hands parents and educators who dare to question the value of their work.

Lauren Myracle proudly calls herself “the most banned writer in the US,” insofar as being banned means having near permanent residence on the ALA’s ridiculous list. (For what it’s worth, despite sounding focused-grouped, that is not a nom de plume.) Myracle is best known as the author of a series of books including “ttyl,” “ttfn,” “l8r, gr8r.” Those are the actual titles. Ms. Myracle’s books are formatted to look like a Mac chat window and are post-modern epistolary novels from the point of view of teen girls who exclusively use “text speak,” e.g. “ttyl” is short for “talk to you later.” Text speak might be yet another classic example of a faddish teenage behavior that adults erroneously believe is more prevalent than it is. If the most famous literary diss is Capote’s crack about Kerouac—”that’s not writing that’s typing”—I’m not sure Myracle even managed the typing part. Critical acclaim for the book is indeed scant. “ttyl” features a single endorsement on both the front and back covers and they amount to the two most unintentionally backhanded blurbs in the history of publishing: “‘Changing the way you read.’ –Teen magazine” and “‘Perfectly contemporary.’ –Kirkus Reviews.”

If you’re forced to read “ttyl,” what you’re left with is teenage girls chatting about visiting porn sites, lubricant, “put[ing] on crotchless panties and do[ing] a lap dance,” and circulating naked photos from a drunken frat party. The villain of the book is, of course, a lecherous Christian teacher who likes to bring female students back to his hot tub. And, again, all of this is discussed in a way that is literally subliterate:

snow angel: our seats r right next to each other, and tonite when i do my homework, i get to fantasize about his summer sausage. *nudge, nudge, wink, wink*

zoegirl: great, while i’ll be reading 5000 pages of The Great Gatsby and answering probing questions about the american dream. mr. h expects us to read a book a week. can u believe that?

snow angel: like that’ll be a problem for u.

snow angel: did he stare at your boobs?

zoegirl: who, mr. h?

snow angel: maddie and i had him for journalism last year, and he was always staring at some girl’s boobs, mostly maddie’s. he was always “reading” her shirts.

snow angel: so watch out. he makes a big deal of being Christian, but what that MEANS is he’s majorly sexually repressed. whereas i, on the other hand, am not sexually repressed at all. speaking of, better start practicing for rob. bye!

It goes on like that for some 200 pages, with a bonus excerpt of Myracle’s book “Rhymes With Witches.” I’d say it’s fair to conclude Myracle is a very challenged author in more ways than one, and if there’s any redeeming value here, it’s primarily justifying the concerns of people like myself who help operate religious schools. But what do I know? They just published a special tenth anniversary edition of “ttyl.”

Still, my suspicions were further confirmed when Myracle recently held an “Ask Me Anything” conversation with the website Reddit. She was asked about what could be done to prevent books being “banned.” Quelle surprise, but Myracle has no problem making sharp value judgments about the mean people who make sharp value judgments. “Talk to the parents of your students (if you work at a school) or offer a presentation to parents at your local library (if that’s where you work). Tell them that knowledge NEVER hurts. (Guns do! Rush Limbaugh does!),” she said. It is oh-so-perfect that in the process of defending the free exchange of knowledge, Myracle throws in a gratuitous dig at the nation’s most popular broadcaster, to say nothing of whether teaching your kid to operate a gun in America is a matter of public safety. But you certainly don’t have to be fan of controversial conservative talk radio hosts to see what’s wrong with Myracle’s self-absorbed and defensive posturing. The invocation of these obvious cultural signifiers is a bright flashing neon sign that Myracle has no compunctions aggressively pushing her own highly debatable politics and values, even as she’s immune to the irony of suggesting that parents who disagree with her are harming their own kids.

But it’s Myracle’s contention that “knowledge NEVER hurts” that is most risible. It’s a near perfect distillation of the fuzzy post-modern sentiment that intentions trump outcomes, and on a basic level, it’s empirically untrue: If I gave al Qaeda the plans to build a suitcase nuke, I’m pretty sure that knowledge would end up hurting a lot of people. That’s an extreme example, but it’s also true that every  responsible parent makes determinations every day about how much they should inform their children about the tragic and difficult aspects of life relative to their need to know and maturity level. As a practical matter, it is universally understood that knowledge given to those who are unprepared to responsibly apply it will, in fact, hurt.

To say that knowledge never hurts is to deny that books have any power to influence people at all. And if you’re not trying to influence people, why write? Clearly, Myracle and many of her controversial peers do think they’re influencing kids for the better, so they want to have it both ways. By claiming they are victims of “book banning” in the broadest, most meaningless sense, they are deligitimizing value-based critics of their work by stigmatizing them as ignorant and anti-democratic. Yet, it’s these parents and educators who actually bear the responsibility of determining what’s appropriate for their specific children, not to mention suffer the consequences of screwing up here. Certainly, other authors think it’s not crazy to suggest it can be harmful when undeveloped minds are exposed to the wrong books. Stephen King pulled his story “Rage,” about a kid who shoots his algebra teacher and holds his class hostage, from publication after it was connected to four different teenage shootings. “My book did not break [these teenagers] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them, because they were already broken,” he said. “Yet I did see ‘Rage’ as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.” In a better world, King shouldn’t feel he has to keep “Rage” from being sold. There would be enough responsible adults around to keep disturbed kids from reading it. This is the difference between actual book banning and what the American Library Association thinks it is.

To some extent, the reason the specter of book banning still looms large is that it is cast against the backdrop of a mythic America that no longer exists. “Banned in Boston” is such an anachronism that virtually no one under 30 has an idea what it refers to. Liberals perpetually scoff that cultural conservatives want to wind back the clock to an idealized version of the 1950s, but when pressed about potentially harmful effects of our anything-goes culture, they pretend the country is still dotted with communities such as the one in “Footloose,” where scowling reverends have passed town ordinances against youthful expressions of joy.

In the age of Google and celebrity sex tapes, whatever America’s problems are, an abundance of repressive attitudes and ignorance of popular culture are not among them. Kids have access to more books and information than ever, and try as we might, Pandora’s not closing the box. We need more involved parents and authority figures acting as responsible gatekeepers, and we need to be having more conversations about what constitutes an appropriate cultural climate for children in an era of information overload. To preempt any dialogue about this by claiming it puts us on a slippery slope to heaving Tolstoy on the bonfire is fundamentally dishonest. And if this is the kind of sophistry necessary to accuse me of banning books, it turns out that I will have no trouble learning to live with myself.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Follow him on Twitter.