Book bans reflect outdated beliefs about how children read > News > USC Dornsife


The United States is seeing more campaigns to “protect” children by banning controversial books. However, research shows that children’s reading experiences are complex and unpredictable.

Banned Books Week, an annual event that teachers and librarians across the US mark with a combination of heartache and defiance, is back. The theme of this year’s event, which will take place from 18 to 24 September, is “Books unite us. Censorship separates us.”

It comes amid regular high-profile efforts to remove allegedly controversial or inappropriate reading material from libraries and schools. Today, the small groups of parents who traditionally lead such efforts are joined by politicians who draft laws that would ban or criminalize the provision of controversial books to children.

I teach a class on banned books at the University of Southern California, so I tend to notice headlines on the subject, but that’s not just a perceptual bias. The American Library Association reports that in 2021 it tracked 729 challenges for library, school, and college supplies totaling 1,597 books. This is the highest number of attempted book bans since tracking began more than 20 years ago. This year is on track to surpass 2021’s record of 681 challenges as of August 31, 2022.

Bans are increasingly targeting books written by or depicting LGBTQ people and people of color. But enduring classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “Grapes of Wrath” were also challenged by parents concerned about their racist language and marginalization of black characters.

“Book bans don’t fit well in the rubrics of left and right politics,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

What unites these challenges is the declared desire to protect young readers from dangerous content. However, attempts to ban books are often motivated by misunderstandings about how children consume and process literature.

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How children read

Many adults assume that exposure to certain literary content will inevitably produce certain effects.

Christian author and editor David Kopp confirmed this when addressing the controversy surrounding the 1989 children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies.

“[T]he deeper dilemma for many Christians opposed to this book is often not a theological one, but an emotional one. It has to do with what we fear,” he wrote on the faith-based website BeliefNet in 2001. “We fear that our children will be indoctrinated in some way. We’re afraid they’ll see homosexuality as normal and then… the part we don’t say… becomes one.”

Kopp found this fear “absurd”. He insisted that “one book, whether well intentioned or not, is unlikely to change our child’s sexual orientation.”

Many scholars would agree. Research shows that children’s reading experiences are complex and unpredictable. As scholar Christine Jenkins explains in an article on censorship and young readers, “Readers respond to and are influenced by texts in ways that are specific to each reader in the context of a particular time and place.”

Put simply, children help shape their own reading experiences. Their interpretation of books is influenced by their personal and cultural history, and these interpretations may change over time or as readers encounter the same stories in different contexts.

Neither the supposedly healthy nor the supposedly dangerous effects of reading in childhood are self-evident. Children are not just empty vessels waiting to be filled with the messages and images of a text, although adults tend to portray young readers as helpless in the grip of the stories they consume.

Wall Street Journal author Meghan Cox Gurdon has argued that parents must always be wary of books that “would level rudeness to the ground [and] misery into their children’s lives.” Earlier this year, a vice president of the Ohio School Board accused Jason Tharp, author of It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn, of “pushing LGBTQ ideas on our most vulnerable students.”

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who are children

Such perceptions reflect pervasive stories American society tells about children and the nature of childhood. These stories are at the heart of a course I teach called Boys and Girls Gone Wild, in which we explore themes of childish innocence and deviance through lyrics like Lord of the Flies, When They See Us, and The Maidens -Suicides.”

On the first day, I ask students to brainstorm common characteristics among children. They frequently choose words like “innocent,” “pure,” and “naive” — although babysitters and students with younger siblings are more likely to appreciate that children can also be “impish” and “weird.”

My students are usually surprised to learn that the Western conception of children as vulnerable innocents is a relatively new idea, dating back to economic and social changes in the 17th century.

The late 17th-century English philosopher John Locke’s idea that humans are born “tabulae rasae,” or blank slates, had an invaluable influence. The child without congenital features must be carefully formed. Thus, according to scholar Alyson Miller, “childhood became a time of intense leadership and control.”

Some groups held different views, such as 18th- and 19th-century evangelical Christians who believed that children were born permeated with original sin. But the narrative of the naturally pure, helpless child informed fields as diverse as biology and political theory.

Perhaps no discipline has been so influenced as the intertwined fields of literature and education.

The value of “unsafe” books

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Book bans gain importance in cultures that see themselves as a barrier between the purity of children and the corruption of the world.

But that effort can have unintended consequences, argue scientists like Kerry H. Robinson. In her 2013 book on sexuality and censorship, she writes that “regulating children’s access to important knowledge … has undermined their development into competent, well-informed, critically thinking, and ethical young citizens.”

Debates about challenging books would be different if participants understood young child readers as active participants in the discovery and creation of knowledge.

Jason Reynolds, the Library of Congress’s national ambassador for young adult fiction and author of the much-targeted book All American Boys, which chronicles a racist police beating, offers a different — and I think healthier — way about the relationship of children to think about reading.

“There’s no better place for a young person to engage and wrestle with ideas, which may or may not be his own, than a book,” he told CNN for a June 2022 in-depth feature on America’s book ban . “These stories should be playgrounds for ideas, playgrounds for debates and discourses. Books are not brainwashed. They represent ideas.”

For Reynolds and the other authors, librarians, readers, parents and educators commemorating Banned Books Week 2022, adults have every right to disagree with these ideas. But instead of dreading the awkward “conversations young people bring home,” adults can actively encourage them.

“When the adults are doing their job,” says Reynolds, “the discomfort that often accompanies growth doesn’t have to feel like a danger.”The conversation

Trisha Tucker, Associate Teaching Professor of Writing, USC Dornsife College of Literature, Arts and Sciences

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.





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