It's Banned Books Week. So what did one group of parents in Anoka, Minnesota do? They got a book banned. A book that, by all reports, tells a great story of kids rising above poverty and abuse without compromising their dignity and integrity.
Full disclosure: I haven't read Rainbow Rowell's Elanor & Park. Yet. But Rainbow and I were students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at roughly the same time. I remember she was an excellent columnist for the Daily Nebraskan, and I know she wrote for the Omaha World-Herald with much acclaim before she became a full-time novelist. I've heard nothing but good things about her writing. And I know she herself rose out of poverty to put herself through university. She knows her subject matter, and I would happily wager that when I'm done reading her book, I'm going to be more angry at the close-minded, hyper-vigilant parents who banned this book, not less.
Parents, librarians and teachers do have a responsibility to determine what is beneficial for the children in their care. But this so-called "Parents Action League" has done its children a grave disservice in having their hissy fit about the harsh language and real depiction of school life in Elanor & Park. I can darn near guarantee you the kids these sanctimonious do-gooders are trying to protect have known words like "fuck" and "shit" for years, and have been employing them with great aplomb and variety their friends for quite some time. I can absolutely guarantee you the kids these anxious helicopter parents are "shielding" have friends who do drugs and make bad choices. The problem isn't Rainbow Rowell's depiction of the harrowing realities of teenage life - the problem is the insistence that clapping hands over ears and eyes is the only way to handle those harrowing realities.
As a friend suggested, maybe we should be talking with our kids while reading great literature rather than taking it away from them. They know life isn't fair and isn't always pretty - what they need from us is a safe place to talk about the unfair, ugly side of life. What kids need from us is a place to be honest about the loads they're carrying. What kids need from us is parents and authority figures who won't freak out if they don't have it all together all of the time. What kids need from us is far less pontificating about what they should be reading, watching or hearing, and far more open discussion about what they are reading, watching or hearing. There is nothing heroic about blinding our children to the world as it is. True heroism, be it from parents, librarians, school administrators, authors or anyone else, is found in facing the world head-on, with all its warts and wrinkles, and taking life for what it is.
When I was ten years old, I spotted a beat-up copy of Cujo in a garage sale bargain bin. I bought it, read it from cover to cover, and my eyes were opened to a whole new kind of literature. Sure, there was a rabid dog who threatened a mom & son trapped in their shitty Ford Pinto out in the middle of nowhere, but that wasn't the best part for me. The best part, for me, was discovering a writer who wrote about real people. Adults who made mistakes, wonder if they're doing the right thing, fail and get up to try again. Kids who are scared of monsters in the dark but try to fight them off anyway. I might not have been old enough for that sort of writing - but I learned as much reading Stephen King, Tolkien, Lewis, Cooper and many, many other authors as I did in all of my "formal" education. Great literature opens up the world to readers - too bad some of those readers are still straining to break away from their clueless parents and those who would "protect" them from reading about a world they see with their own eyes every single day.