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Whiting Out Our Sins: Banned Books

Whiting Out Our Sins: Banned Books

Jan’s family was very strict about certain things, but we always had more fun at her house than anywhere else. They had no TV. They could only listen to the radio for news. So we were forced to make up our own entertainment. The women in her family had to wear long skirts and long sleeves and couldn’t wear makeup or cut their hair. I decided at some point that this must be their way of trying to be as close to God as they possibly could—and although I didn’t agree that all these extra restrictions were necessary for me, I respected the intention behind them.

One day, I finished a book that I loved, one of the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery. (To give you an idea of how clean they are, they’re sold at many Christian bookstores. To give you an idea of how good they are—Madeleine L’Engle also claims them as her favorite childhood books.) I wanted Jan to read it too, but it had a few "bad" words in it. Her father had to read every book before she did, and she could only read it if he approved. I knew that if the book had "bad" words in it, she would not be allowed to read it—so I took a bottle of White-Out and went to town. One of the running "jokes" throughout the novel was the main character’s habit of quoting Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth by saying, "Out, damned spot," or talking about her writing as being "damned with faint praise." Diligently I re-read the novel, blanking out even the "darns," afraid that Jan’s father might consider those profane as well. About halfway through, I gave up. I didn’t like marking up my book, and I didn’t like white-washing the story.

It made me sad for Jan and sad for her dad, too. Reading L.M. Montgomery gave me so much joy as a kid, and although the books aren’t overtly religious, I could give you several explicit examples of ways those books shaped my theology. To say that my friend couldn’t read and absorb this art because of the "bad" words was essentially saying that the badness of the words was more influential and powerful and important than the life-altering beauty of the art.

Most adults would agree that freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of information are important rights that we hold as Americans. However, the issues become somewhat complicated—and people become more passionately interested in the issue—when children, especially their own children, are involved. Hence, book banning. Beverley Becker, associate director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, said most challenges come from parents upset about "materials that are either aimed at or available to youth." Public schools and libraries are particularly vulnerable. For instance, a mother in Arkansas who did not want her children reading Harry Potter books because they "promote witchcraft" succeeded in restricting access to them for all children in her local libraries. Robert Cormier’s young-adult novel about school life, The Chocolate War, leads the association’s list of the most frequently challenged books in 2004, despite having been published more than 30 years ago. It was cited for such things as sexual content, offensive language and violence. Since 1991, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has compiled an annual list of books that librarians, teachers or others report have been challenged; there were 547 challenges in 2004, up 25 percent from 2003.

There are children who grow up in happy homes, untouched by abuse or tragedy. They have both a mother and father who love them. They have enough to eat every night and have friends at school. Perhaps they’ve never been exposed to racism or poverty. I was one of those kids, and I’m so thankful to have had the childhood I did. But many of my friends and schoolmates did not. Lyndon B. Johnson once made the claim, “Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance.” I know that in my own childhood and young adulthood, reading books such as Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Giver by Lois Lowry, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene shaped and changed me. They gave me pictures of what other lives drastically different from my own looked like. They helped me to form empathy for the pain of others and tools for relating to those I had nothing in common with. It’s sad and a little bit scary to think that if some people had their way, those books would never have been available to me to read in my school or neighborhood library.

Read more about Banned Books Week and view a complete list of challenged books here.

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