It is Banned Book Week, when we draw attention to books that are kept out of readers’ hands, acts of censorship, and efforts to ban books across the United States. These sadly often involve individuals successfully seeing to it that a book is not used in a school, taken off a library shelf, or otherwise kept away from its readers. Frequently the challenges come about because of religious reasons, differences in ideas about parenting, apprehension about the mention of anything sexual, violence, and more. I have great admiration for all the writers, teachers, librarians, and book lovers who work fiercely and unceasingly to get the word out about this.
But it also has me wonder — what about the books I keep away from my students? The books that make me uncomfortable? Sure, some of them are old and will wither away, but there are others too. For years one of my favorite books to read aloud was Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me — until the year I had a Japanese child in the class. Set on an isolated farm during World War II, the young narrator is drawn into one escapade after another by his wild cousin, Harris. That year I got to the point when Harris wanted to play war and called the pigs “Commie Japs” and I stopped, suddenly hyperaware of how that must sound to my Japanese student. I then attempted a long explanation about the phrase. How Harris had the vaguest sense of the Japanese and only that they were the enemy and so forth and so on. My Japanese student looked puzzled as did the rest of the class. I went on and read the rest of the book — leaving out every subsequent mention of those Commie Japs. And that awakening caused me to never read the book aloud again. So perhaps I’m a book banner of sorts.
And how about last year’s discussion around the Kickapoo Princess in Richard Peck’s A Season of Gifts? While some may have kept the book on their library shelves I have to wonder if others backed off from it in other ways, ways more along the lines of my doing so with Harris and Me. Perhaps this isn’t really book banning, but then what is it exactly?
I think it is always a good idea as we rail against small mindedness to consider if we ourselves are doing some of that ourselves. When I came of age in the 70s we were frequently urged to recognize our own racism and later reflect on white privilege. Sort of like that Avenue Q song —”Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” For me book banning is probably on a continuum — there is the quiet sort of not-using-a-book-as-it-has-stuff-that-makes-me-uncomfortable at one end and the egregious sort that makes headlines at the other end. And so I think that during this important week that as we speak up against censorship we should also reflect on whether we do any of it ourselves.
Also at the Huffington Post.