The following essay was written for an exam for my Literature For Young Adults class this spring. The exam question was about censorship and asked students to discuss three of the books we had read during those six weeks to discuss in the essay. Please keep in mind that this was written in a thirty minute window and I haven’t touched it since (save to type it here). My response, which received an A, expresses how I feel about banned books and young readers.
Books are tiny windows, ways of viewing lives. It doesn’t matter that these may be works of fiction. In fact, in many cases, fictions wield more power. Books offer a way for readers to experience all that the world has to offer and all that the world has to take away. While it may be the instinct of parents to shelter their children from the darkness in our world, it is a mistake to shelter them from darker literature. These windows to the darkness offer children a valuable experience at a safe distance. They are allowed to see and understand without being victimized in reality. Censorship of these works does not remove these negative experiences from our world, but instead it leaves children unprepared to manage them.
To a casual reader, Albert Camus’s The Stranger may seem like a horrible little story about a callous man who kills someone and is executed. Meursault is not a paragon of our western Christian values by any means. He is an atheist who lies to please others and sleeps with a woman he does not love. He certainly is not what most of us would raise our children to be. Yet, we can see ourselves in him. He floats along the path of least resistance. He does not engaged in life and friendship, but instead goes through the motions and exists. It is this kind of living that brings him to the beach with a gun in his pocket and an enemy in his presence. Thus, Meursault becomes an example of how anyone who does not make their own decisions can become a killer. He teaches the reader that we have to care about life. Men who just go along with the actions of others can be just as guilty of evil as those who actively seek it. So many teenagers go through high school agreeing with what’s cool and doing the minimum that is expected of them. How easy it is to lose control of your own life when you don’t care!
Another excellent cautionary tale is Steve Harmon’s story in Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. Myers shows a shocking, violent, nightmarish life behind bars. Steve listens as his cell mate is raped in the next bunk; this detail could have been spared, but it is important. Prison is not just a way to earn street cred. It is hell. It is important for Myers’s readers to see this. As with Meursault, we see how easy it is to go along with things, to end up involved in a murder by taking the easy route. Monster tells its readers to think for themselves and, more importantly, to think it through. Steve did not think about how his part in the robbery could lead to murder. Steve’s lack of forethought lead him to a living hell.
Of all of the works we have covered in Literature for Young Adults, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak may be the most important. It is important for the victims to know that speaking out is the only path to healing. It is important for young men to know what rape is and what it does. It is important for communities to understand how this crime shatters lives and how we tend to miss the signs and cries for help. I have actually seen news coverage of a Shelby County mother protesting the use of Speak in schools. She saw it as disturbing, but did not see its value because her daughter had not been raped. In truth, one in five women in America have been sexually assaulted. It is important for us all to understand so that we can fight that startling statistic and help those who are already part of it.
Ignoring our problems won’t make them go away. Fiction gives us the power to discuss real life events through a layer of removal. Fiction provides a safety net to our children so that they can learn about the evils of our world without fear of falling. Taking these works away won’t solve our problems. They did not create the problems; they are a response to our world. They are weapons and armor, tools for teenagers to equip themselves with as they prepare to face the world ahead. Stripping away these tools will only leave them vulnerable.