A year or two ago I did just that, picking up Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer, a YA read about friendship and grief, with just a bit of romance. It was banned because the protagonist has (spoiler alert!) consensual sex. For the first time since Judy Blume's Forever, it seems, a girl has sex with a boy and doesn't spontaneously burst into flames of regret (or get pregnant, or get herpes — they do use a condom.)
an excellent blog post yesterday on the topic of sex, teens, and banned books, which I encourage everyone to read. I posted it on Facebook, and in the ensuing discussion one of my friends said, "Just be glad they're reading."
And that is actually what I want to talk about.
I am a passionate proponent of literary freedom, especially in YA books: I think we need more topics more widely discussed in young people's literature, and I've written about this here and here. But that doesn't mean I think content is irrelevant.
Is there something edifying about the mere act of reading? Does looking at a block of text—any text—automatically make you cleverer? Or perhaps that's not it, perhaps it's that stupid books are gateway-drugs to smarter books. Get him in the habit of reading (the thinking goes) and next thing you know, your offspring will be inseparable from his copy of War and Peace. It's a theory that people seem to accept as fact, but I'm not sure there's any actual evidence for it. It's like the sunny side of the slippery-slope fallacy: a kid who reads Captain Underpants or Twilight will learn to stare at words, which will then inevitably set the stage for Proust. To me, this seems as sensible as giving kids Twinkies in the hopes that they'll eventually get to kale. More likely, Twilight-reading teens will become Fifty Shades of Grey-reading adults.
|Why, just yesterday he was reading The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby!|
Stories don't have to be difficult or challenging to be "good": I want to be clear about that. Fun books and simple plots can still have storytelling value. Books that exist merely to entertain, to be escapist, are not automatically bad books. My own criteria for a bad book is that it has to be poorly written or have a bad message; some, like Fifty Shades, are twofers. You get your terrible writing and your crappy message in one tidy little bundle!
Whether we keep actively-bad books out of the hands of our kids is a question that leads back to where I started: is that censorship? There are solid reasons to draw lines between kids and books: Is it age-appropriate? Is it going to give her bad ideas? (I have a friend who had to "ban" Captain Underpants because the practical jokes it inspired in her household were out of hand.) Is it morally questionable? Will it be too upsetting? Parents, like school libraries, have to make those kinds of decisions all the time, and sometimes we separate our kids from good books for bad reasons. But sometimes we offer our kids bad books for one particularly wrongheaded reason: the assumption that books, by definition, can never be bad.