I’ve been re-reading Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series in preparation for the first movie, which comes out at the end of March. I’ve also been re-thinking about the challenge that put The Hunger Games on the ALA’s “Books Challenged and/or Banned in 2011” list: a complaint from a New Hampshire mother to the Goffstown School Board in 2010.
This particular mother’s problems with The Hunger Games were, according to the School Library Journal, that the book gave her eleven-year-old daughter nightmares and might numb other children to the effects of violence. “There is no lesson in this book except if you are a teenager and kill twenty-three other teenagers, you win the game and your family wins.” So says the school board’s minutes, anyway.
Whether or not one agrees that this is the only possible take-away point from The Hunger Games (spoiler: I don’t), there’s other interesting issues involved in challenging The Hunger Games in particular and books offered for school reading in general:
1. When we say a certain book is “inappropriate” for children, what do we mean?
2. How does our definition of “inappropriate” affect our willingness to call for an outright ban of a book?
Book challenges revolve around the idea that a particular book or series is “inappropriate” in some way. Without bothering to define “inappropriate,” the ALA notes that “sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections,” though violence, drug use, war, and death are also high on the list. One thing we obviously mean when we say a book is “inappropriate” is “it deals with topics deemed too heavy for children.”
For instance, consider Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, which made the 2011 banned-books list on the grounds that it was “soft pornography” that “glorifie[d] drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.” Speak‘s plot actually focuses on the experiences of a teenage girl who was raped by a classmate at a party, and who must find it in herself to fight back against shame, victim-blaming, and further sexual exploitation. Far from “glorifying” rape (the only “premarital sex” that actually takes place in the book is not consensual on the narrator’s part), drinking, and cursing, the book explores how rape is terrifying yet also survivable; how getting drunk is not, contrary to popular opinion, a free card to raping someone nor an excuse to blame a drunk victim; and how cursing is something we do in response to horrible situations – or how we degrade others further by calling them dehumanizing names. Yet Speak was challenged, not because it exposed rape, drinking, and cursing for what they are, but because it talked about them at all.
Unsurprisingly, book challenges based on this definition of “inappropriate” are far more likely to be based not on how these topics are presented, but the fact that they are presented. It assumes that some topics should be kept out of the reach of all children, regardless of their age, personal maturity, or resources for discussing said topic. It assumes that some topics are simply so terrible, traumatizing, or taboo that no literary treatment could render them suitable for anyone under age 18 – not even if those same children have actually experienced said topic for themselves.
(In the case of Speak, it’s particularly saddening to consider that some of the book’s readers may be teens who were actually raped. Because Speak deals with rape, however, at least one parent wanted to eliminate it from the library options for all teens, including rape survivors. One wonders what, if anything, that parent is doing to eliminate actual teen rapes. But I digress.)
Not surprisingly, defining “inappropriate” as “books that cover topics I find squicky” is prime ground for demands that a book be banned from a library or pulled from a classroom curriculum. It’s also the easiest way to get one’s dander up, because it doesn’t actually involve reading any books. Speak talks about
sex rape? Get it out of here; I don’t want my kids knowing sex is a thing. The Hunger Games explores the horrible effects of state-sponsored murder and objectification? Not in my school’s library, it doesn’t! And so on.
I prefer a different approach.
Rather than defining “inappropriate” as “books that deal with topics I find squicky,” I prefer to define “inappropriate” as “books that deal with their subject matter in a way that a particular reader can’t make sense of.” When I talk about whether or not a book is “inappropriate,” what I talk about is whether or not the book handles its subject matter – from sex and drugs to puppies and rainbows – in a way that its actual or intended audience can engage with.
I believe any topic can be made age-appropriate. I also believe any topic should be made age-appropriate. If a child is old enough to ask how babies are made or what Mutual Assured Destruction is, that child is old enough to hear an answer zie can understand. Kids aren’t stupid, and they do live in the same world as the rest of us. They know sex, drugs, death, and swearing are things. The question is how they will deal with those things in their own lives – and how we can best prepare them to make healthy and consensual choices when they encounter these things in the real world.
Under this definition, of course, picking the right book for the right kid takes more work than merely ranting at a school board meeting because you heard that Bridge to Terebithia contains the word “damn.” It sometimes even means getting the book-kid match wrong - and helping your kid work through the consequences.
An example: when I was in tenth grade, our history teacher assigned us reading passages from John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning article that was later released in book format. Hiroshima, for the uninitiated, describes what happened in those fateful days on and after August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on the eponymous city.
In detail. Extensive, gruesome, heart-wrenching detail. I’m-about-to-throw-up-in-class detail.
Hiroshima was the only reading assignment I never finished, and the reason I didn’t finish it is because, to my 14-year-old self, the descriptions in it of the survivors’ tormet were, frankly, horrifying. I couldn’t handle them. I took the book back up to the teacher’s desk, handed it to him, and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t read any more of this.” (He let me off the hook; my shaking hands and decidedly green complexion might have had something to do with that.)
Was Hiroshima “inappropriate” for fifteen-year-old me? Yes and no. I could have gotten the same message – “atomic bombs do horrible, horrible things to real live humans and other animals” – from a less graphic book. But the very fact that “atomic bombs do horrible, horrible things” was my take-away from that tenth-grade history reading indicates that Hiroshima was an appropriate choice for me at the time. After all, I learned exactly what the teacher was trying to convey.
Defining a book’s “inappropriateness” by its approach rather than its topic is far less likely to lead to a demand for a ban. Different books approach topics differently, and what works for one kid may not work for another. In this situation, it makes sense to have as many different approaches available as possible, so as to reach as many children as possible on any given subject. It also makes sense to create an environment where your children feel safe speaking to you about any topic, secure in the knowledge that you will neither condemn them nor confiscate their personal libraries. It’s all part of raising kids with enough inner tools to make their own good choices.
After all, children are people, and this Earth is the only rock they’ve got. We may as well teach them what challenges they’re likely to face. Maybe they can do a better job of solving these problems than we have.