When My Mother Dared to Let Me Choose My Own Books

“I do not believe that any book should be denied to the man who possesses the wisdom to understand it, Bruno, but that does not mean I am confused about where truth lies.”
~S.J. Parris, Heresy

The summer I turned 11 was a turning point for me. As an author who opposes censorship and advocates for our many freedoms, that summer is etched in my mind. It was the summer my mother trusted my decisions. It was the summer I experienced the positive outcome of a freedom to read what I chose. It was the summer that had a lasting impact on my life, values, and beliefs.

As we prepared to enter middle school, my friends all opted for a big summer camp finale which left me to a long and boring summer alone. Having read all my library books, I rummaged through the basement in search of books or games cast off by my sisters. They were 6, 8, and 11 years older. I found several that looked promising, but one was especially intriguing. When Debbie Dared. The hardback book had no dust jacket so there was no book summary. I read a few pages, as the school librarian had taught us, and it seemed interesting. A girl moves during the summer and hopes to make a few friends before she begins Jr. High.

DebbieDaredI took the book to my mother. “Is it okay for me to read this?” I asked.

She was preparing a cup of tea, something she’d done at this time of afternoon—our former nap time—for decades though we were all long out of preschool. Glancing at the book she said, “Looks like it belonged to one of your sisters.”

I nodded. “Found it in the basement. It’s called When Debbie Dared.” I paused. No reaction. “So, can I read it?”

She studied me for a moment and took a sip of tea. “Why couldn’t you? Did you read a few pages?”

“Yes. The girl in the story is a little older, going into Jr. High. What’s Jr. High?”

“It’s similar to middle school. Jr. High included grades 7-9. Grade 6 was still in elementary.” I wrinkled my nose thinking that I’d still be in elementary next year with this set-up. “Your eldest two sisters went to Jr. High, but then they restructured the grades.”

I thought about that and looked at the book, wondering what Debbie dares doing?

Mom calmly watched me, sipping her tea and unwinding. “So tell me, why do you think you shouldn’t read it?”

“Well, the title—When Debbie Dared. There’s no summary.” I showed her the blank back of the book. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

“What do you think it’s about?”

I shrugged.

“What do you think the ‘dare’ is about?”

My throat tightened. Again I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you remember?”

Mom laughed. “Honey, I probably never read that book. If I did, or if your sisters told me about it, it was so long ago, I don’t recall.” She patted my hand. “What do you think? Why are you worried about this?”

“I don’t know. What if . . . what if it’s about . . . about dating or . . . or sex?”

illustration by Stephanie Piro

illustration by Stephanie Piro

I could tell this was something she hadn’t considered. But, in hindsight, how would my sisters have read a book about such things? The book had to be about a decade old, give or take a few years.

“I see,” Mom said, then sipped her tea. “Why don’t we do this? You read the book and if you get to any parts where you think you shouldn’t read it, then stop. Or, if you get to parts you don’t understand, bring it to me and we can read it together and talk about it.”

“Really?”

“Really.” She patted my hand and I ran off to read, my conscience greatly unburdened.

During the next day or so I read and gave her the plot summary. Sure, the story was outdated but I enjoyed it. It turned out the big decision Debbie needed to make was about shoplifting. She wanted friends before school started and two popular girls befriended her. But, to prove her loyalty to them, she was supposed to steal a bracelet from a jewelry store in town. She agonized over it, but in the end stood up to her so-called friends.

Later Mom noticed I was sprawled on the couch reading a different book. “Did you get to a part in the other book and stop reading?”

“No. Finished it.”

“So, what was Debbie’s dare?”

“Shoplifting a bracelet. She didn’t.”

Mom moved my legs to make room for herself on the couch. “So, do you plan to shoplift now?”

I put my book down and scoffed. “No. Debbie stood up to her friend. I liked that. Now I know how I could do the same thing if someone tries to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”

Mom patted my leg as she got up. “You know, you can always come to me if you don’t understand something you read, or hear, or see somewhere.”

“I know. Thanks, Mom.” She kissed my forehead. “That title was pretty unfair, though. It wasn’t what I expected at all.”

She smiled. “But it got you to read it, didn’t it?”

She was right. And I learned something from that book that stayed with me until this day. And, itt did help me say “no” when pressured to smoke cigarettes or try drugs or whatever. And if my friends didn’t respect that, then I knew they weren’t really my friends.

We-should-have-the-right-to-think-for-ourselves-540x720

quote by ALA President Roberta Stevens

Most importantly, because my mother was brave enough to allow me to read that book—when neither of us knew what it was about—she gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow. She trusted me to choose. What if she had denied me that right? Worse, what if someone else—a stranger somewhere—had made that decision for me? And that’s why I advocate against censorship, against taking away such a right. We have no idea how and when our fellow readers are ready to deal with the ideas presented through the intellectual property of authors. Everyone should have the right to choose his or her own reading material. Stand up for this right.

Yes, children are impressionable but their parents—not any other parents or teachers or adults—are responsible for monitoring their child’s reading material. This idea is supported by the “Library Bill of Rights” (the American Library Association’s basic policy concerning access to information) which states that:

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

Censorship by anybody, violates the First Amendment.

To learn more about challenged and banned books, visit the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom page.

Proud to Read Banned Books

bannedbooksI’m climbing onto the soapbox for my annual speech about banned books. We all have the right to our opinions, and for most of the countries in the world, this includes voicing these opinions. If we can write and talk about our views, why should we not be allowed to make our own decisions regarding the stories we choose to read? This is why I “celebrate the freedom to read” every year. Besides, as a published author I’m against censorship. (Though, sadly, as a teacher I must at times “censor” excerpts read aloud in class due to the topics; after all, I feel it appropriate to consider the sensibilities of the other students, but this is the topic for another time.)

40bannedbooksWhat irks me the most about the lists of “censored” books (which include both those books challenged and those that are banned and removed from library shelves), is the reasoning behind the “complaints.” I often wonder whether the books have been fully read by the person complaining. When I worked at a library years ago, I was also baffled by written complaints from parents about a book. Clearly, they did not want their child(ren) to read these books and that is perfectly acceptable (see my first few sentences above); however, to make this “decision” for every other reader is the issue I have with such challenges. Perhaps I’m “offended” by the saccharine and shallow reading material you choose. But I don’t restrict you from reading it. See, this is the central point of the freedom to read–choosing your books.

Here are just some of the “reasons” behind books being challenged: “offensive language” (according to whom?); “sexually explicit” and includes “homosexuality”; “violence” (do you watch much TV?); “unsuited to age group.” This year, graphic novels top the list for children’s books included. In fact, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins for challenged do to “anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.” Do you realize how many families enjoyed this movie (which followed the book’s plot line very well) and had discussions about the heroes-readissues raised in the story? For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, the reasons include: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. If you’ve read this book, you know Alexie is Native American and the book is about living on Rez. Is someone offended by the portrayal of whites in this book or of Native Americans? If it’s the latter, then the book needs to be read not censored. The main character is trying to break the cycle of poverty of his family. Incidentally, many of the children’s books that make the list include “unsuited to age group.” Hello? These children’s titles are juvenile literature published by the children’s division of a major publishing house and I’m supposed to believe that those editors and publishers don’t know the target audience?

The first time I reviewed the list of banned and challenged books from the past, I was shocked to see so many books I loved, some that I’ve only read because they were required reading in literature classes. Many have changed my views on life because I read them. Here are a few I read in school (and am rereading while tutoring high school students): The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (1925); The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939); The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906); To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and so many more.

As an author, my mind whirls through potential story ideas based on how my life might be different if I had never been exposed to literature deemed “harmful” by some other reader. Even this finds it way into my writing, in a world I’m creating where Kaeylene lives in a time in her world when some others decided the who and what of daily life for all (and of course, she fights against this “norm”). Thankfully, it’s only a fantasy and I travel there to continue writing it on my terms.

the fREADom to read

I’m a reader. Since before I learned to decipher the symbols that created letters and words, I’ve been fascinated with books and stories. I had the influence of older siblings and parents I saw reading all the time. Since my father was in graduate school when I was in preschool, I even have a book I scribbled in with yellow crayon because “Daddy writes in his books!” And, because I have siblings who are much older (11 years), I learned in second grade that didn’t have to read a book that did not interest me. What I read was my choice. I learned early that I had the freedom to read.

This week, though, is the perfect time to choose the freedom to read books others try to tell us we cannot read. This week is about bringing notice to censorship. During Banned Books Week, librarians, writers, readers, and other advocates for literacy shine the spotlight on books that have been either challenged or actually banned.

What’s the difference? Challenged books are those that people out there are trying to get removed from use in schools or from library shelves. Banned books are those have already been removed. You can learn more about each type of book and those on the challenged books list by going to the Banned Books Week site. The American Library Association tracks challenges and creates lists. For example, in April 2013 Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series made the top of the list. The reason? Offensive language and unsuited for age group. Anyone who knows kids—especially boys—knows these are wildly funny and tremendously popular books. Pilkey has nailed what boys this age find funny (well he should, he once was that age). More importantly, he gets them to read! We need our children to enjoy reading so they will grow up to be readers and thinkers! To see other books on the list, click here. (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about)

Just a few weeks ago, one of the writers in my Creative Writing workshop approached me after class. He was concerned that I might censor his manuscript due to offensive language and sexual content. I’m always torn in these situations. As a writer I refuse to censor anyone. As the instructor I do need to take the sensibilities and comfort of the other students into consideration. (Before you argue about “comfort,” keep in mind this a lifelong learning program with some people at the beginning stages of their writing development so creating a safe and comfortable environment for sharing to learn from each other’s works is vital.) I generally leave it to the group (since group dynamics change each time the course is offered). I’ve only had one instance where someone in the group made the choice not to listen to/read the manuscript. And that is each participant’s choice, just as it is the choice of each reader as to what he or she will or will not read.

So, take a stand this week. Voice our fREADom to read. By the way, check out the lists of banned books here. Bet you’ve read one (or more)!