In a recent post I recommended the Bone series by Jeff Smith, and a commentor asked what I thought about a volume of the series being challenged in one state by a parent who objects to depictions of smoking and drinking. This is always a delicate subject so I hope I'll be clear here in my response. I'm amazed how often people will assert that I have this or that belief based on something I said in a blog post and it's not something I believe remotely. So I cry and I plead and I beg not to read into what I say but assume the best!
First let me grandly state that I am opposed to CENSORSHIP. I don't think there are many authors in the world who aren't. Let me explain why in this case and please add your thoughts in the comments as I know every issue has many sides.
I believe absolutely in parents' right to monitor what their children are reading and watching. But book banning goes further. Book banning takes the book out of many children's hands. Book banning states: "This book isn't right for my child; therefore it is right for no child and no child should have access to it." While I believe that those who seek to ban books usually have the absolute best intentions, I don't think banning a book from a library or school system accomplishes what they want.
For one thing, book banning brings the challenged book MUCH more attention. [SIDE NOTE: Please challenge my books! Ban away! It's great publicity. Go ahead and perform some public book burnings. My sales numbers will only go up.] Those who oppose a book are doing it a great favor by talking about it so publicly. I know a couple of authors whose books were among those most challenged last year, and they do not celebrate that fact. It hurts. It makes them sad. But realistically, it really does help sales.Banning seems such an extreme action to me, especially as it is so strongly based on opinion. It represents a few people's (or often, one person's) opinion of what is not okay. Opinion is so personal, I think it's a very tricky thing to assert that because one parent found a book inappropriate for her child, that means it's inappropriate for all children and the book should be out of access. Here's an interesting list of the most often banned books in the US in recent years. I'd bet that even a person who is passionate about banning certain books from libraries could find several books on this list that they love. They might think, "What on earth could anyone find wrong with that book?" But of course many others might be asking the same about a book like Bone.
In order to ban a book, I should think one would need to prove that the book is detrimental, that it does more harm than good. The Bone series has gotten so many kids reading books and done a great service to literacy in general. Much good has come out of these books. I would be very surprised to find any child who decided that smoking and drinking is a good idea based on reading those books. I hesitate to talk too specifically about these books because I haven't read every volume in the series, but my impression was that the story didn't glamorize drinking and smoking for kids. The main characters don't smoke and drink. But I'll go a step further: to my mind, the presence of alcohol and tobacco in a book isn't necessarily a bad thing.
What a shocking thing to say! How on earth, Mrs. Hale, can you justify that? You who don't smoke or drink alcohol and don't want your children doing it either, how can you possibly believe that a book who demonstrates characters enacting in such behavior could be beneficial?"Thanks for asking, and with such passion! I discovered recently that my six-year-old didn't know what "smoking" meant or what a "cigarette" even was! It's just not common anymore, and we don't know anyone personally who smokes. Depictions of smoking in books is already anachronistic. And yet cigarettes still exist, and it's likely that one day my son will be offered a cigarette. I'd like him to be prepared. I've found it very helpful when a book showed someone smoking because it gave me an opportunity to talk about it with my son. I explain what it is and why we don't do it. I tell him about times when people offered me a cigarette and how I said, "No thanks," and that was fine. I brought up the subject again with him a few months later, and he remembered the conversation vividly. We've had similar conversations about other things based on what we read in books.
I spoke with a neighbor recently who was uncomfortable with her twelve-year-old daughter reading Twilight. She is morally conservative and told her no, no, no, based on what she'd heard about the books. But the daughter was getting desperate. EVERYONE read the books and she felt left out. So the mother used this as an opportunity to connect with her daughter. She read the Twilight books along with her daughter and talked to her about sexuality. The stories allowed her a way to communicate with her daughter on a subject she felt was very important. She reads most of her daughter's books now and says it's deepened their relationship.
My brother when he was five was offered chewing tobacco by a neighbor boy. While my parents had talked to him about smoking, they'd never mentioned chewing tobacco because it wasn't relevant, they thought. He was unprepared for the invitation. Perhaps if he'd read a book where someone chewed and asked about it, my parents could have explained what it is and why it's bad, and then when the situation arose, he would have known how to respond. Books are, in part, about education. If books only show virtuous characters who never do wrong and a world sanitized of any possible offense or harm, how educational is that? What good is such a book? Burn that book, I say! Burn it, burn it! (okay, not really, I just wanted to shout that textually.)
I think the important thing for worried parents is parental involvement. When parents read to their kids and/or read what their kids read, that opens doors to conversation. Sometimes kids don't know what to ask, and sometimes parents don't know what their children are facing. Reading together offers more conversation possibilities than regular life because stories take us to places and situations we might never face together with our children.
Really, though, my opinion is based on a certain key belief: I don't believe that children imitate what they read in books. I believe they absorb and learn from books, but I don't think they smoke because a minor character in a book smokes. A child's behavior is much more influenced by parents, siblings, and peers. But books do affect how a child sees and makes sense of the world and her place in it. Books are powerful, I have no doubt. But even more powerful are parents. Books + parents can change the world.
Unrelated to book banning, this story is just too wonderful.