This year, Banned Books Week is September 23-29, Many years this event has been more commemoration than celebration. There has been an edge of defiance to it as well—no one is going to tell me what I can read! Legitimate questions are aired and debated again. What should be banned? Is it explicit “adult” content? Graphic violence? Profanity? Anti-Catholic/Christian sentiment? Is it okay if there’s just a little bit? How much is too much? This year the tone is one of freedom, the freedom to choose, the freedom to think critically.
As adult Catholics, we can decide for ourselves what type of material we read. We can also monitor what our young children are reading and veto any choices that we find inappropriate or harmful. There are hundreds of wonderful Catholic children’s books out there, in every style from high fantasy to mystery to realistic fiction, so our young readers don’t have to feel we are depriving them of the fun their friends are having.
It gets a little trickier as children get older and begin to bring home reading lists from school. Take a peek at the current list of banned or challenged books and there’s an excellent chance at least one title will be on the required reading list. As concerned Catholic parents and educators, should we allow our teens to read these books or should we not allow our children to read them?
I’m not about to make that decision for anyone else. It’s too personal. But I would like to suggest that we pause and really consider the decision. Most literature offers commentary on the social issues of its time. Charles Dickens provided his readers with a frank, often bleak insight into the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poor. The classic story Black Beauty is a plea against animal cruelty. And who can forget the power of Huck Finn discovering that Jim bleeds the same as he does?
In our own time, books like these teach about the cultural values of a different time and make it possible to examine the problem in context and open a discussion about what we as a society learned from these experiences and how they changed us. Currently many writers are examining race and class issues, exposing injustice by allowing the reader to vicariously experience the plight of those who are suffering those injustices. Many are written using language and situations that can seem harder and more graphic than they need to be. But life itself is often harder and more graphic than it needs to be. Should that fact be edited out of our literature? Or can we use these books to open dialogue with our teens and young adults about values and ethics?
So how should we respond as concerned Catholic parents and educators? First of all, we can instill good reading and viewing habits in our children. Speak with them about why they shouldn’t read an objectionable book, and how it affects their faith. With high school students, speak with them about what they are reading in class. Ask them to share how they feel about the books they are required to read and ask them how faith is presented in them. This subject does not usually come up in the classroom, but it is just as important as any other literary theme. Teaching them this skill now will enable them to understand the impact what they read has on their faith life. If we can do this, we won’t have to ban books because our children will know how to interpret what they are reading and to avoid those works that can harm them.