Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banned Books Week: Read Them Anyhow

Most of the books on the ALA's list of those challenged (meaning someone attempted to ban them from a community, but lost) or banned were intended to be read by children, from kindergarten through high school.  Most of the challenges centered around issues with language, race, religion, or sex.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, when my son was in the fourth grade, we got a surprise in the mail:  an Advance Reader Copy of a new novel by one of my son's very favorite writers.  ARCs are pre-publication copies--the book wasn't going to be published for a few months.  However, I share a U.S. editor with the author in question, and said editor had heard my son was a big fan of the author's works.

My son was perfectly capable of reading the book by himself, but, in recognition of the specialness of the occasion, announced that he would let me read it to him.  This would slow us down--no reading ahead was one of our rules--but we would get to enjoy the book together. 

The book's protagonist was nine years old, but the book's intended reading audience skewed a little older--perhaps ages 12 and up.  As we were reading, I began to get the idea that one of the parents in the book was having an affair.  The protagonist was going to discover it.

Uh-oh, I thought.  I wonder if that's appropriate for my 9-year old?  Am I going to make him worry?  I suggested that we take a break (figuring I'd read on ahead.)  My son cut his eyes at me.  "Keep reading," he said.  A few pages later, I said, "Should we talk about where I think this is going?"  "Just keep reading," he said.

Then it was out: the affair, the mistress, the upset protagonist.  I read to the end of the chapter and closed the book.  "Ok," I said, "Let's talk."

"I don't want to talk about the book," my son said, very quickly.  "I want to talk about ----"  And he named one of his close friends, whose family arrangement was atypical.

"Oh," I said.  "Well, first of all, whatever is going on with parents is totally never the kid's fault."

My son breathed an enormous sigh of relief.  "Yeah, I knew that," he said.

We proceeded to have one of our best talks ever, about families and relationships, about what we believe God tells us is right, and how people always make mistakes, and how after we've made mistakes we have to then try to make things as right as we can.  We talked about all sorts of things.  We talked for a long time.

Later I realized how silly I'd been.  In my son's small private Christian school were single parents, divorced parents, and grandparents raising children.  He had classmates with parents in jail, classmates with parents who used drugs, and classmates adopted from orphanages.  He already knew all the different kinds of mess families could be.  What he needed was to be able to talk about it.

When people ask me, as they quite often do, whether a particular book is appropriate for their child, I always say, "I don't know.  What did you think when you read it?"

"Oh," the inevitable answer comes, "I didn't read it."  Or they skimmed it looking for the bad words.

Here's a hint:  if your child is over age 10, they already know the bad words.    They already know the bad stuff.  They worry.  They don't need you to tell them that all families are man and woman, married forever, virgins until their wedding night, protestant Christians who never drink, smoke, or swear.  They need you, or someone, or a book, to tell them that they are not alone.  That they can make mistakes and still be good people.  That in the end everything can turn out all right.  They don't want us to back away from the difficult stuff.  They want the truth.  They want us, or someone, or a book, to help them deal with it.

Over ten years ago I went to the ALA convention in Atlanta.  My fourth book was just about to be published; I wasn't someone many people had heard of.  I was wandering the convention floor when I happened upon the company who'd recorded an audio book of my third novel, a story about a pioneer girl with severe asthma.  The company is a big deal; their posters and displays were all about the latest John Grisham audio book, something like that.  I went up to the two men there and said, "I'm Kim Bradley, and you recorded my book Weaver's Daughter.  Thank you."

The first man shook my hand in a sort of smug, isn't-she-a-cute-children's-author sort of way.  The second man looked startled.  "You wrote Weaver's Daughter?" he said.  "I read that book to my daughter."  He paused, then went on.  "Until we read it, I never knew she was afraid to go to sleep because she thought she'd stop breathing in the night.  She said she thought she was the only person who ever felt like that.  I never knew how scared she was."  He paused again.  "Thank you."