There is a scene in Footloose (the real Footloose, not the fake-let’s-please-pretend-it-was-never-remade-Footloose) when the straight as a line Reverend Shaw Moore is called down to the library to deal with a group of creepy book burners. Earlier in the movie our fiery, Men at Work blasting hero, Ren, has already made the mistake of telling the town he read and even—gasp—liked The Slaughterhouse-Five, and now here we are waiting to see how the fire and brimstone Reverend reacts to setting said book on fire.
Well, as it turns out, even the man who banned rock-and-roll and dancing in Bomont cannot abide this. He delivers a couple of powerful lines right there outside the library, a pile of books smoldering before our eyes. Among them,“Who elected you to be the saviors of everybody’s souls in Bomont?” It’s a good scene and one that was, from all reports, cut from the fake Footloose, but I digress.
Footloose, in all of its time-to-dance glory, came to mind because we are in the thick of banned books week, which got me thinking about a phenomenon we are all guilty of at some point or another—not book-burning so much but this: My point of view must be your point of view. This, of course, has also been the fuel for so many political and social fires throughout human history. And it is what continues to fuel the banned books debate to this day. So, when someone says, we do not want this book on our children’s library shelves, or sold at our bookstores, and you had better get rid of it or else, I ask, or else what?
Or else it might spontaneously fly off the shelf and into your child’s trembling hands, opened to the page with all the SEX, POLITICS, and WITCHCRAFT? It is this “or else” mentality that requires our attention and our parenting skills. My kids will often concern themselves with the sports team loyalties of their friends. Is it okay if Johnny is a Mets fan? I chuckle because at 5, my son would basically rather both teams win than one of them feel bad for losing, but never mind that. He’s a brainwashed Yankee fan and that’s that. “Well sure” we always say, “what fun would it be if we were all Yankees fans?”
But that’s the thing. For the moment, we are his moral compass and likewise it isn’t anyone’s job but ours to make decisions about what information he processes and how he processes it. We trust ourselves with this job and we trust our children’s teachers and their librarians, too. Every day we rely on this gate-keeping system—we assume our teachers won’t teach our kids calculus in the 2nd grade, that they will hold off on explaining the gas chambers to kindergartners. Why don’t we trust them (or ourselves) with the books? Which ones to read, and which ones to leave on the shelf for someone else to explain to THEIR child.
If we make edicts about books that are too difficult, too filled with fantasy and not enough about God, too explicit about sex, too violent, too gay, well then we are not equipping ourselves or our children with the ability to discern their own taste for these things from the next person’s. What we are stripping ourselves of is free will. Even the Reverend Shaw Moore knew this much (and in the end even he comes around to music and dancing and twinkly lights, thanks to a little old testament gem Ren turns up).
Now, perhaps you don’t want your child to read And Tango Makes Three, the story about how two male penguins conceived a baby penguin, and that is your right. But does that mean my kids shouldn’t read it? And if your child happens to come upon it at my house, and feels shocked by it or moved by it, will you say, well it’s true that happened? Or will you pound your chest and say, no, no, no, not THAT—anything but THAT?
We must ultimately do our jobs—filtering information, of course, but also helping our children process the information that pushes us out of our comfort zones. I truly believe that if we remain active participants in the school, social, and reading lives of our children, we needn’t worry about the little bits of strange that slip through the cracks—the book that scares them? No problem. The book that worries us? Done. The book that maybe shouldn’t have been published in the first place? We can handle it.
Later in their lives, my children will get to read something that shocks them and moves them again. The Slaughterhouse-Five perhaps. Or maybe my daughter will read the oft-challenged, Go Ask Alice her freshman year of college, like I did, and maybe she will have to lay her head down on her dorm bed for a while, like I did. And then maybe she’ll talk with her friends about it, like I did. Wonder who wrote it, how the diarist had gotten to such dark place, feel sad all afternoon and all night. But she will get to own that experience, just like I did.
She will get to do all that because we sent her out into the Brave New World, prepared—prepared to cry, to mourn, to celebrate, to worry, to be horrified perhaps by what she is exposed to in fiction and in life. But prepared. And then she will maybe go out for sushi and thank God that she isn’t that narrator and maybe she will feel confident that while she is a little bit tormented and a little bit brooding the way college freshman often are, she isn’t quite that lost. And she will have gotten somewhere from the experience.
And I will be so grateful that she was allowed to have it, that we fought against censorship of books that shake us up a little, so that my kids’ lives might be shaken and stirred to move through the world with open, blazing minds, with warm hearts, and yes, the conviction of born and bred Yankees fans.
Save Slaughterhouse-Five and Go Ask Alice for much, much later and check out these books, which also have made someone’s challenged or banned list. (There are so, so many books I haven’t listed here, but I hope this gets you going):
For little ones on up:
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Strega Nona by Tomie DiPaola
For 2nd graders on up:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Jame and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
The Lion, the Witch , and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
For 3rd graders on up:
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
*Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
*updated list to add this one today because well, someone banned it this year