14 July 2013

Harry Potter and the Banned Bookshelf

On our recent trip to Oregon, we spent a few days visiting friends in the very literary town of Ashland.  Shakespeare is everywhere in Ashland, thanks to the theater festival hosted there every summer.  While there, we spent a rainy day wandering into various shops, including a lovely bookstore downtown that sold new, used, and collectible books.  The shop was run by two older women who had that mix of sass and swagger that instantly made me want to hang out with them for the rest of the day.  Their books were mostly organized by subject matter:  gardening, Shakespeare, folklore, mystery, etc, as in most bookstores.  There was also an entire bookcase devoted to banned books.  It was fascinating to scan the titles of books deemed inappropriate, vulgar, controversial, and scandalous, and to note many favorites among them.
My daughters are voracious readers like me, and I thought they’d find this particular display interesting.  I drew their attention to it and briefly explained what it means to ban a book:  that a group of people feel a book’s topic is not appropriate and that the book should not be available to anyone.  This is quite different from, say, a parent’s decision that a book or movie is not appropriate for her own children at a particular age of their lives.  For example, I would not permit either of my daughters to read Fifty Shades of Grey at this is point in time, and yet, I also feel that it should be available to others who choose to read it. 

We stood before the bookcase and they read the titles.  It wasn't long before they demonstrated their shock: 

“What are all of the Harry Potter books doing here?”

“Shel Silverstein?  Are you kidding?”

Their exclamations continued, and while we stood there, a small group of people gathered behind us and voiced similar reactions.  A little while later my daughter asked me why someone would ban Shel Silverstein, well-known for his collections of children’s poems, most especially Where the SidewalkEnds.  And I realized, as with some of the tough questions I’ve been fielding lately as a parent, that I didn’t have an answer for them.  I couldn’t pinpoint what might be offensive about any of the books they were familiar with.  But I urged them to keep asking questions, especially when someone is trying to protect them from knowledge.  I want them to wonder and question and to never be afraid of information regardless of its form:  novel, poetry, music, art.

After we returned home, I did some research to find out why some of these books have been challenged and ultimately banned in certain places.  There were three basic arguments for the Harry Potter series:  the books promote witchcraft, Harry breaks the rules and yet is portrayed as good, and that the subject matter was too dark and violent.  And yet, [spoiler alert] if you’ve read the books or seen the movies, you are aware that the major theme is the triumph of good over evil.  But in order for good to triumph over evil, it is sometimes necessary for unjust rules to be broken.  To criticize Harry for breaking the rules is akin to criticizing our founding fathers for standing up to the over-reaching laws of George III.  Henry David Thoreau, widely considered to be the quintessential American philosopher, wrote a treatise entitled “Civil Disobedience,” in which he examines a citizen’s right to reject laws which are unjust.  As far as rejecting Harry Potter for promoting witchcraft, I fear there are much darker and more real forces than this fictional series describes.  One need only look to the nightly news to find evidence of them.  And regarding subject matter being too dark, this seems to be a personal preference.  What is too dark (or depressing, or realistic, or graphic) for one of us might be what makes a story appealing for someone else.

The kids in Harry Potter are placed in situations where they have to make choices, just like any of us.  These choices have the potential to impact their lives and the lives of others in positive or negative ways.  Some adults don’t want to teach the kids the skills they will need to survive in a world fraught with danger; others find it necessary to do so.  Some of the kids make good choices, others make bad ones; some of the kids survive and others do not.  This magical world seems to be a lot like the real world, doesn’t it?  Instead of dementors, we have meth and other addictions that destroy our essence.  Just like Dumbledore and Delores Umbridge, positive and negative role models surround us, and it is up to us to determine which is which.  And as in Harry Potter, our children will eventually learn that adults are not only fallible, but at times dead wrong.

And isn’t that ironic?  That, as J. K. Rowling put it, “we all have light and dark inside of us.  What matters is the part you choose to action.”  Of course, we know this already, and children know it, too.  So why are we afraid to trust them with their choices?  If we allow them to make small choices (like what books to read), they will perhaps be prepared when the time comes, to make the best choice about issues that truly matter.  Some adults don’t want anyone to read a fictional fantasy about kids forced to navigate various perils and make choices that will allow them to overcome evil.  Perhaps what those who ban books actually fear is free will. 

Banned Books Week is typically observed during the last week of September, to celebrate our freedom to read what we choose while also highlighting threats and challenges to this right.  I encourage you to look at the most challenged titles of the past decade, here

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