Sunday, January 15, 2017
I’ve thought a lot about censorship lately.

Just a few weeks ago, in my home state of Virginia, a school system decided to pull To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from its shelves. This decision makes me sad. It makes me frustrated. But mostly, it makes me determined to push the limits as a writer.

Material which is censorship-worthy belongs in our books. In my experience, people censor ideas which are meaningful, like history they’d rather ignore, relationships which are out of their comfort zone or fantasy and science-fiction. There’s always something.

The thing is, I’m most moved when I read about situations which bother me – situations which make me squirm with discomfort. Those moments replay in my mind long after I’ve finished the book, but it doesn’t mean they should be censored. It doesn’t mean the author shouldn’t include them. Often, those disturbing scenes – which some people might leap to censor – give me a new perspective on life.

In short, those questionable moments make me think and, as an author, that’s what I want to offer my readers: material and situations which make them question their world.

As writers, we should remind ourselves not to self-censor. Sometimes our characters take a life of their own. They act in ways which might be offensive to us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t include that material in our writing. In fact, we should use our talents as writers to test our comfort-zones.

This goal, of course, doesn’t come without its drawbacks. I’ve seen John Greene’s unhappy responses towards those who censor his novels and I've heard Sandra Cisneros talk about those who ignore her books' meaningful messages because they challenge their own beliefs. These authors are so passionate about their craft, and the last thing they want is for a school system to classify their books as unacceptable reads, alienating their target audience.

We are writers. It’s our job to share the world – be it historical, contemporary, or futuristic – with our audience. That means sharing the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. But I challenge you to suspend your inner censor, particularly in your own writing. Difficult topics make for great stories and great connections with your target readers.

Recently, I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which was challenged and censored in Texas in 2016. It was nothing short of wonderful, and I'll be teaching it to my AP Language and Composition students next month.

Which book are you daring to read?

Bethany Masone Harar is an author, teacher, and blogger, who does her best to turn reluctant readers into voracious book-reading nerds. Check out her blog here.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Beth--When I see the list of banned books--among them "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Huck Finn" and "Catcher in the Rye"--I am amazed by how many people jump on and agree with the ban, even though they've never read the book and I'm puzzled why the books are on the list.

Certainly, books that move us emotionally move us intellectually. Oftentimes that shift in our feelings causes a paradigm shift.

Your students are fortunate that they have a courageous teacher. Don't ever lose your bravery... Teaching ain't for the timid, that's for sure.

Beth said...

Totally agree! My favorite books are usually on the censored list. I do a unit every year where I ask my students to read a book which has been censored or banned in the past. It's silly, but I always feel like a rebel when I do it. :)

Margo Dill said...

I think the banned books list is actually not such a bad thing because luckily there are thousands of readers who read books because they are put on that list. :) But the principle behind someone deciding that a book should be banned is awful and discouraging in my opinion. I have already decided that I will let my daughter read anything that is considered age appropriate and I will read it too. That way we can discuss it because that is really the only way to learn about the world--past, present and future.

Beth said...

Margo - I totally agree. Using books as a conduit to important discussions with our children is the way to go.

Jenny Baranick said...

The Things They Carried is so powerful. It's so great that you will be teaching it. It's so sad to me that these wonderful books are being banned because school is the only place many people will get exposed to these books.

Lyn Jensen said...

Is there a way of complaining to the school in Virginia?

Mary Horner said...

I love books that challenge us. They require great teachers to help readers understand why they are important, and that having different ideas is not necessarily bad. Thanks for allowing your students to explore worlds they may never have known!

Unknown said...

Books are sometimes the only way individuals are exposed to something they are not familiar with in their lives. Books open a world (long past--and often very uncomfortable to deal with). They also help us to question how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go to become a better people. When a book is banned, it compels me to read it, because I know that someone else realizes the information and viewpoint need to be out there. It doesn't mean we have to agree with it, but it opens a world and increases our knowledge--and hopefully, our empathy and understanding of another's view of the world. If we deny our children that opportunity, we only hinder them in learning about the real world--the good, the bad, the ugly--and the most wonderful.

Linda Appleman Shapiro said...

Thanks for giving me so much food for thought.
Banning any book is all too reminiscent of what's happening in our country. Banning anything, anyone or any way of thinking comes from places of fear and ignorance . . . and, in the end, deprive others of experiencing ideas, people and cultures unlike their own.Those who ban tend to be power hungry,ultra extremists who believe that they havethe right to "dictate" what we read, whom we befriend, and, in the end, stoke the fires of prejudice and hate. As autors, we havethe right to speak our truths and tell the stories that we feel compelled to tell (whether fiction or non-fiction).

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