BY Meredith Flory
Banned Books Week, celebrated the last week of September, is an alliance of organizations tied to literacy, such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association, to encourage discussion across our country regarding the problems with censorship and the need for diverse voices and topics in literature.
I was first exposed to this event as a graduate studen, and participated in an event where I read aloud from Bridge to Teribithia, an award-winning children’s book I did not have access to until I was an adult due to the banning of it in school libraries in the community I grew up in. When I finally read the text, I loved its exploration of questions regarding death and religion from a child’s perspective and was surprised it was considered a “bad” book, but also understood why some parents would feel cautious regarding these tough topics.
Perhaps you’ve had an experience where your child’s literacy skills are growing and it has become difficult to find reader-level books with content you feel comfortable with. Maybe your family has enjoyed a series of books and been surprised when other adults chastise you for the content whether or not they have read the book themselves. Possibly you’ve been asked difficult questions by a child after they’ve read a book and you aren’t sure how to respond. Or, you’ve happened to be a parent, teacher or student in a school that is debating “banning” a book from the library or classroom shelves.
These experiences all deal with the responsibility adults have in guiding our children’s learning experiences, while walking the fine line between protecting and censorship.
As parents we face difficult tasks sometimes in making sure that our children are exposed to books and media appropriate for their age and maturity level, while also making sure our communities have access to challenging and diverse texts that can allow young people to make sense of the world around them.
I spoke with two librarians for Columbia County, Micah Newsome, who works with young adult patrons, and Natalie Pulley, a Children’s Librarian, on the topic of helping guide our children through growing independence as readers.
Help Your Child Navigate Book Selection
The idea of separating books out specifically for children or young adults is relatively new in the history of writing, and many texts are appropriate for multiple age levels, rendering these labels a bit fluid. For instance, consider the number of adults who enjoy popular fantasy or science fiction series labeled as “young adult” that contain younger heroes and heroines, but still deal with more intense subject matter. Some series mature over the course of the books, as the protagonist, and presumably the readers, ages. However, marketing descriptions can still serve as a useful starting point as a parent.
Pulley shares, “generally, books featuring school-aged characters tend to stick to themes and content that are age-appropriate and relevant to those characters and are written at suitable reading level. Because most kids want to read about characters they can relate to, there’s some self-regulation. If parents want to help select a book for a child, the age of the main character is often a good indication of where the maturity of themes and content will fall. That’s certainly not universal.” She follows up by reminding parents that “blurbs and synopses” available on book jackets, online reviews and other sources will give a pretty clear view of the subject matter. Children will gravitate towards what interests them, so as you and your child discuss hobbies, interests and schoolwork, tie their questions into what they are reading, helping them learn to select books, rather than simply selecting it for them.
Remember That “Appropriateness” Is Subjective
Pulley points out that, “as a children’s librarian, my job is to make materials available for children from many walks of life. But what individual parents view as appropriate for their children is often vastly different.”
In the Young Adult section of the library, Newsome works with books geared towards 11 to 18-year-olds, which, as she states, “encompasses vast differences in reading level and maturity.” For instance, she explains, “Some authors deal with more serious themes (drug addiction, abuse, sexual assault, human trafficking, suicide, etc.) which do happen to kids in this age range, but which may be too much for some children.” Keep this in mind when noticing that everything labeled children’s or young adult literature may not feel comfortable to you. Differences in culture, religion and region impact our individual views of what children should and should not read, and this varies from family to family.
Use Difficult Texts as a Bonding Opportunity
Pulley shares, “If parents appear to be really concerned with specific themes or have concerns about specific topics being introduced, I ultimately suggest that they examine the books themselves. This is a hard answer for parents sometimes but I try to remind them that it is an opportunity to read, discuss and grow together. Book discussions can lead to so many unanticipated benefits.” This is a great way to positively handle concerns about literature your child is reading. Consider reading the book yourself, speaking with a teacher or librarian or looking at expert reviews, rather than listening to hearsay. If the book is appropriate but challenging in some way, use it as an opportunity to have difficult discussions with your child or teen regarding the topics in the book.
My interaction with Banned Books Week events was eye opening and informative and helped shape the way I think about book selection for my students and children. The theme for this year’s banned book week is “Diversity” and the organization hopes to spotlight “that over half of all banned books are by authors of color or contain events and issues concerning diverse communities.” Please see their website https://www.bannedbooksweek.org for more information, including a list of books that are frequently challenged. The list may surprise you!
Meredith Flory is an Augusta-area freelance writer, military spouse and mother of two. She has a masters degree in children’s literature from Kansas State University and has taught high school and college English.
This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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