It’s Banned Books Week, a week long focus on issues of censorship, particularly surrounding challenges to books.

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First, a note on some vocabulary. To ban is to officially or legally prohibit something. Banning is pretty rare these days, though occasionally school districts will prohibit the use of a book in the curriculum or even its presence in schools. More common are challenges, which is when a patron comes forward to say a book does not belong in the school or library. I actually don’t think that all challenges are bad. They are a chance to open up a dialogue between the librarian and the patron (typically a parent). What I don’t like are the large-scale challenges where one organization or another declares war on a particular book. The challenges are less about the book itself, and more about an issue to which the organization wants to draw attention to, often religion, politics, or sexual content.

Whether the challenge comes from a single parent or an adult acting on behalf of an organization, the root of the challenge often comes down to fear. Fear that these books are upending the status quo. Fear that a child might emulate the actions or language of the book. Fear that the book is exposing the child to evils s/he doesn’t know about and isn’t ready for.

A question I’ve had since my days at Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science is whether or not these challengers had any grounds to stand on. After all, I would say that reading has transformed my life. If books are transformational, then shouldn’t we show great care in what our children read?

While preparing for a presentation on difficult issues in writing for children for my residency at the Stonecoast MFA, I decided to dig into the issue. In doing so, I found a terrific article by Christine Jenkins: “Book Challenges, Challenging Books, and Young Readers: The Research Picture” (Language Arts: v. 85, iss. 3 – Jan. 2008 pp. 228-236). In it, she reviews the research regarding children’s response to reading, and from these she drew four conclusions:

  1. Reading, by itself, without discussion, changes readers very little, if at all.
  2. The way readers respond to and are affected by text varies by reader and the context of reading.
  3. One reader’s response cannot predict another reader’s response.
  4. Forbidding reading materials does not make the readers any less interested in the topic. In fact, it heightens interest in the materials.

So number four is kind of a “Duh, they needed a study for that?”, but the other three I find particularly interesting, especially that first one. Reading changes readers very little? Jenkins points out that many studies done on this topic are problematic, but she does summarize one that was done in a Boston suburb (presumably largely white) in 1965. The aim was to determine the effect of voluntary reading of books with neutral or positive portrayals of African Americans attitudes. Five classes of fifth graders were given pre-tests that were used to rate the students on a continuum from low in prejudice to high in prejudice. They were shown pictures of groups of kids (white, mixed, or black) doing different activities and asked which group they would like to join. Then a week later, they were given a collection of books that they could choose from for free reading each day. These books were chosen for their neutral or positive representations of African Americans, and were rotated through the classrooms. Students were asked to do reading reports, but were not supposed to discuss the books. After six weeks, they were given a post test. The conclusion? The students who had the low prejudice rating, the more books they read, the lower their prejudice score in the post test. For the students with “high prejudice” ranking, the more books they read, the higher in prejudice their post test scores. The study’s author concluded that reading “operates as a booster to one’s attitude rather than a change agent”.

Now it’s important to note that there was no intervention by teachers, librarians, or peers, and it’s likely that the author would have come up with a different conclusion if there had been. But, these results are interesting none the less. They explain why Laurie Halse Anderson reported

after five years of pretty heavy school visits, and people putting the book into the curriculum. In every single demographic—country, city, suburban, various economic classes, ethnic backgrounds—I’d go into a class and talk about the book. And usually by the end, a junior boy would say, ‘I love the book, but I really didn’t get why she was so upset.’ I heard that so many times.  (Atlantic Wire 2013)

The boys didn’t understand — didn’t know — that what happened to Melinda was rape when they started the book, and the mere act of reading the book was not enough to convince them otherwise. (I will leave the potshots about those who find this book “pornographic” to you.) Placing the book in a larger context of class discussion and research could change views, but it’s not enough just to read.

While this conclusion might prove disheartening for writers — Our books have no impact on readers? — please take heart. The point of books is not to change people’s minds about an issue; if so, books would be pedantic and boring. Each reader brings his or her own needs to a book, and thus takes what he or she needs from it. This is the magic of literature and it is the reason we need to continue to fight against would-be censors.

The Science of Book Banning

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