Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Book Week

This post is different from my usual anecdotal and/or introspective posts on my year teaching here in Costa Rica. While that has been the focus of this blog, I have made sure not to imply that I would only write about my time here. I have written about other topics  and will do so more often as my time here winds down and I return to the US.

This is Banned Book Week in the US. In answer to a post by the Rejectionist, I am writing about To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (from this list) . This will not be a review, as Le R called for, but more focused on why To Kill a Mockingbird is important to me and why book banning is misguided at best. I am focusing on one book to keep this post from becoming book length, since I struggle with brevity in my writing, not because any other book deserves to be banned more.

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book that I read in school, from 1st grade through senior year of college. It is also one of my top 5 favorite books of all time. While it is hyperbolic to say I would not be the same person without this book, to say it opened my eyes to a power of fiction I had previously not experienced is simple truth. It makes me incredibly sad that this book might have been banned from being taught1 at my high school or even from being shelved at my library.

When I was in middle school and high school, I read as a form of pure escapism. I liked it when the novels addressed weighty issues under the surface, but the majority of my reading was science fiction and fantasy novels (SF/F), with an emphasis on fantasy. Within fantasy, I gravitated towards simplistic Good vs. Evil tales. I loved the unimportant youth grows up to be the Good warrior fighting Evil trope, be it Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, or Tamora Pierce's Alanna (not to say these books are simplistic, since these are three series I still reread). This still holds true, but much less than ten years ago. If my local library had a fantasy series, I had read it by the time I was 14.

To Kill a Mockingbird was the opposite of my normal reading choices. It is a "serious" novel, both in its themes and in its literary style. It deals with shades of reality and how people are while also showing the consequences of the character's choices. Furthermore, I was required to read it for school. While I never had an instinctive dislike for reading assigned work in school, I think To Kill a Mockingbird had a lot to do with that. On the surface it is surprising that I would love a book set in the 1930s, in the Deep South, but that's the power of To Kill a Mockingbird (not to mention the assumption that boys won't read books with girl main characters, but that's a whole other post).

To Kill a Mockingbird taught me about a specific time in US history and social justice. I learned about a time in US history often overlooked in school. I also learned the importance of the day to day grind of fighting for equal rights and that disappointments are a part of the struggle, not a reason to stop. The stake which even the poorest white had in a segregated society was eye-opening, as well as the obviously rank injustice which a black man could face in that time (remember, I was 14).

Are these lessons I would have learned without this one book? Undoubtedly, but not as viscerally, not with the immediacy that To Kill a Mockingbird gave these issues, being as sheltered as I was from such concerns. Much of the book I knew intellectually, but not the stakes nor the ordinariness of the people involved.

Sometimes a self-centered middle class white boy needs to read a great book to see beyond the end of his own concerns and angst. That is what is lost when such books are banned. Be it a classic, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, a book about an all boys high school, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (thankfully my all-boys high school was nothing like that), or a book I have not read yet, but will, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, a highly regarded YA book about dealing with rape, they are all important and all should be shelved in libraries available to all youth, since book banning is always framed as for the sake of the children.

If parents wants to stop their own child from reading a book, fine, but children age at different rates. Some age faster because they can and some because there are forced to against their will. To deny them the books to deal with and understand life as it is, not as we wish it to be, is a tragedy.

1. On teaching this book. I understand that the depictions of race relations and the language, in particular the n word, used in the book could cause trouble depending on how it is taught or the situation in which it is taught. I can only imagine if this book were taught to immature middle schoolers the damage it could do. My opinions on whether a given book should be taught are not nearly as strong as about book banning, though I value the lessons I learned from To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Heck, I'm more likely to argue for more nonfiction in high school English classes, not about the choices of fiction.

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