Ellen’s Choice: The Problem with Banning Books

Since Banned Books Week happens in mid-September each year, I’d like to talk today about the problem with banning books. Last year, my Bring Your Own Book club’s topic for September was to read a banned or challenged book. We had a great discussion during our meeting about common threads in all of the books we read, common reasons why books get challenged, and how that relates to the education system in general. One of the things that kept coming up was that often, the reason the book was challenged is the entire point of the book itself – of course it deals with that; that’s the main theme of the book! Whether it’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Looking For Alaska depicting kids smoking, drinking, and doing drugs, or it’s The Giver depicting a fundamentally broken society masquerading as a utopia (psst – that’s the definition of the genre – it’s a dystopia!), or even a gorgeous picture book called “And Tango Makes Three” telling a true story about a pair of male penguins who raised an orphaned baby penguin, people who challenge books often seem to miss the whole point of the books they want to ban.

Often when people want to ban books, their reasoning is that the book is ‘unsuitable for the age group,’ which seems to be code for “I don’t trust my kid to understand the nuances of this issue.” Other common reasons to challenge books include quote-unquote “adult themes” (often along the lines of drinking/smoking/drugs, gambling, nudity, sex scenes etc.), and these are even more likely to be the issue if the book centers around teenagers – heaven forbid we depict teenagers smoking outside the school building or drinking underage at a party!

But here’s the thing – literature is at its best when it forces the reader to confront uncomfortable subjects and ponder hard questions. That’s especially true of books for young readers; in my opinion we should be encouraging students to read books that will challenge their conceptions and get them to think hard about their own opinions. The crux of the issue here is that, yes, for the most part we all agree that these underage behaviors are bad – but there’s no denying that they do take place. My argument against banning books is essentially the same argument I have against abstinence-only sex education – if we simply remove all evidence of these activities from existence, we eliminate the chance to have important discussions with students about the ramifications of those activities.

As an example, take Looking For Alaska by John Green. This boarding-school story has been challenged many times, and usually it’s due to a single graphic sex scene in the middle of the novel. John Green has spoken about his rationale for including this scene several times. For just one example, visit his YouTube channel, “Vlogbrothers,” and search for the video titled “I Am Not A Pornographer.” He points out in this video that the language used during the scene is very cold, clinical, unemotional, and the participants barely know each other and their connection doesn’t develop any further in the rest of the story. He contrasts that scene with the scene immediately following it, where there is no physical intimacy yet the emotional bond shared between the characters is powerful and heady. His reason for including these scenes back-to-back is to show that physical contact is not necessarily the end-all be-all of romantic relationships, and that two people can share a closeness purely out of emotional connection even without physical intimacy. In John’s own words, “Looking For Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.”

If you leave Looking For Alaska in the school library (or, better yet, include it in a curriculum!), you can use it to start a group discussion on these themes and explore them further with the very population you’re concerned about, encouraging them to think critically about the difference between physical and emotional intimacy and make reasoned decisions about how to incorporate both into their own lives. It seems to me that most of the worries people have that lead them to want to ban books could be solved by simply talking to their kids about the realities of the depicted material. Conversation is always better than censorship.