Who are they protecting?: Censorship of books for teens

As someone who selects and hands out children’s and young adult books for a living, I’m no stranger to censorship. Granted, here in liberal Boston it doesn’t happen as often as I imagine it does in some other places, but it does happen. And when it does, especially with books for teens, my mind always goes back to an opinion piece Sherman Alexie wrote for the Wall Street Journal back in 2011, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.”

In the article, Alexie, a well respected adult author who broke in big on the YA book scene in 2007 with his semi-autobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, explains how books about traditionally controversial topics – sex, violence, addiction, crime, abandonment – can be lifesavers, especially for teens suffering from these issues. He knows firsthand because of the reaction teens had to his book and the fact that Part-Time Indian has been challenged in no less than 3 school districts across the country. He also knows because he was a teen who lived with abuse and addiction:

In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?

“Wow, you are way, way too late.”

The notion that censorship of books could somehow protect a teen who had already faced down those demons and lived through it is not only too-little-too-late, but it is also incredibly condescending. Pretending that the horrors of the world that so many teens suffer through do not exist and should not be shared in the safest and most private space of all – a book. Alexie puts it best:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

Every year around this time, Banned Books Week attempts to bring censorship back into the public consciousness, and year after year people write and talk about how censorship is bad. However, it’s not enough to denounce book banning or censorship. It is so much more important – and difficult – to talk about why censorship, not the content it supposedly saves people from, is harmful and who is harmed by it, and the purposes that censorship really serves – fear, control, and the selfish protection of the adults who take these books out of teens’ hands.

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