When I was 8 years old, I took my then-favorite book, Bridge to Terabithia, to school. I didn't want to read the book myself -- I had already read it and loved it -- but instead wanted my teacher to read the book aloud to the class. It was, perhaps, my favorite part of school. After lunch each day, my third grade teacher would read aloud from a book she had chosen: Ramona and Beezus, The Lion's Paw -- chapter books some of my fellow students couldn't yet read for themselves. I loved my teacher for this, and I wanted her to know: I was with her. I understood.
So I took Bridge to Terabithia to school.
My teacher flipped through the pages and shook her head. "I can't read this one to the class," she told me. I was perplexed, confounded, stunned.
And my teacher proceeded to point out the word "hellhole" in one of the chapters.
It was a word, it should be noted, that I had never noticed while reading the book myself. Grown-ups often notice things children do not. I had read the book and loved it for the story. That word? I had read right over it.
I was devastated, but not to be deterred. I marched home, took out a black Sharpie marker, and marked the word out as neatly as I could. The next day, Bridge to Terabithia went back to school in my backpack; I took it up to the teacher, and I tried again.
She smiled, and she read the book to the class.
It was my first experience with "banned" books -- books teachers and school boards and libraries and churches and parents mark as unsuitable for the students they teach and care for and love.
I don't envy my third grade teacher.
Teachers have a big responsibility, and they're required to answer to parents and principals for the decisions they make inside the classroom. I attended a private school where the word "hellhole" might have indeed incited a riot.
But I wonder if instead it would have incited discourse?
Or, even more likely, if my fellow students would have even noticed?
As I recall, my teacher read right over the offensive word when she read the book aloud to us (I had, after all, blacked the thing out to help her move on). Bridge to Terabithia, I am sure she knew, was about so much more than that one word.
This week, bookstores and libraries and schools across the country celebrate and honor banned books. At The Bookshelf, we're joining in the fun. We've set up a display at the store, and we'll be quizzing you this week on the books schools and libraries have banned over the years and why.
Some of the books are classics: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Diary of Anne Frank. Others are new, many of them young adult stories: Looking for Alaska, The Hunger Games, The Giver. And yes, there are reasons for them to be banned. Reasons I might not understand, but reasons nonetheless.
And I do not envy schools or libraries or churches in the work that they do. I know they must answer to boards and to parents, and so they have to do what they think is best.
But we're doing our children a disservice, I think, when we take books out of their hands and tell them to read something else. Wouldn't it be better to read the book right along with them, to help guide them through it?
I'm not an educator. But after I left the third grade, I kept reading. (I don't think I've ever stopped.) Several years later, when Harry Potter was released for the very first time, my dad bought me a copy. He bought me a copy when a lot of kids at my school weren't allowed to read it. Harry Potter was never banned at my school that I remember, but he was certainly never read aloud either. But my dad bought me a copy, and I read it, and guess what? Then he read it too. And it became our "thing," and all these years later, I'm so glad. I'm glad he didn't decide to take the book away, didn't prevent me from reading it because someone else might have deemed it inappropriate or offensive.
We have to do what we feel is best for our kids. I'm not a parent or a teacher, but I'm inclined to believe that if anyone has the right to ban a book, it's a parent. But -- important to note -- a parent of their own child. Ideally, I think, parents and children would decide together what's appropriate reading material for their families. And again, I'm not necessarily qualified to decide what's appropriate material for the parents I meet inside the store (though I certainly will help you if you ask).
But I will tell you that all of those books my parents let me read, mostly because I doubt I could be stopped? They led to some wonderful dinnertime discussions. And the things my parents might have noticed -- questionable scenes or language we didn't use at home -- chances are, I never would have picked up on those things anyway.
See you in the shop,