From where I sit, the leaves are beginning to turn, nights are becoming chilly enough that they require an extra blanket, and squadrons of apple pickers are descending on the orchards every weekend. Yep, it’s getting to look a lot like Banned Books Week.
I’m not entirely sure why the American Library Association has chosen the last week of September to celebrate our freedom to read. It probably has something to do with the beginning of the school year, but you’d think that summer would be a better time, ’cause what better material to take to the beach is there than a book that is a flashpoint for controversy? “What am I reading? Feed, by M.T. Anderson,” you can hear a reader saying. “It was a National Book Award finalist and was challenged in a Virginia high school because it is ‘trash.’ It’s awesome.”
Whenever it’s celebrated, though, Banned Book Week is always a good time to reflect on humanity’s apparent inability to resist the appeal of thought control. The urge to shape our children according to our sense of the grown-ups we want them to become is a tempting one. If we keep them from reading about gay people/drugs/swearing/premarital sex, we seem to reason, they will grow into straight, sober, well-spoken, chaste adults.
I like to think of myself as one of the forces of good. As a librarian, I proudly embraced the principle that a good library has something to offend everyone. But in my private life? Yes, I was a book banner.
The first book I banned was The Little Engine That Could. Not the 2005 version illustrated by Loren Long—it didn’t exist at the time—but the original one, illustrated by George and Doris Hauman. It was a baby gift, natch, stored in my daughter’s bookshelves until she was ready. But when she was ready, I found I was not. “Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks. She was a happy little train / for she had such a jolly load to carry. Her cars were filled full of good things for boys and girls.”
Gag. Was this the book that generated the great American trope “I think I can—I think I can—I think I can…”? Yep.
Over and over—and over and over—I read the book to my daughter, finding something new to hate with each rereading. The treacly text, with its capitalized epithets (Shiny New Engine; Rusty Old Engine). The abysmal pacing, which depicts the Big Strong Engine a full page-turn before it appears in the text. The smiling apples and walking spinach. The stupid good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain.
I hid the book, but somehow my daughter kept finding it, and I kept reading it. Eventually I buried it so thoroughly it went away forever. Successfully banned.
The next household ban was against the Arthur books by Marc Brown. I love the TV show, mind you— “World Girls,” which deliciously skewered American Girl dolls in just 14 minutes, is a gorgeous bit of satire. But I just couldn’t warm up to the books, particularly the later ones, which were essentially picture-book versions of the TV show, as with Arthur’s Perfect Christmas, which has a teeny-tiny note on its copyright page that reads, "Adapted by Marc Brown from a teleplay by Peter Hirsch."
Fortunately my permissive stance with regard to the TV show kept my daughter from pursuing Arthur books too energetically. After the 75th or 76th time she brought an Arthur book to me in the library and I told her I wouldn’t read it to her, she gave up. Another successful ban.
Then there were the Berenstain Bears. This mainstay of American childhood set my teeth on edge. What was with Mama Bear’s housecoat and that ridiculous polka-dot mob cap she wore all the time? Why didn’t Brother and Sister Bear have real names? Why was Papa Bear so dense? And then there were the Lessons, splattered on the page in the literary equivalent of red paint so they were impossible to miss. From The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room: “…Papa had been right….It was so much more enjoyable to live in a neat, clean, well-organized room—and so much more relaxing!” From Mama Bear’s harangue in The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings: “I’ve heard quite enough about what you don’t have. It would be very nice if you would start appreciating the things you do have. It’s called ‘counting your blessings.’“
It’s not that I disagreed with the lessons themselves; I just couldn’t stand the bludgeoning delivery. As with Arthur, I just refused to check them out for my daughter. Happy to wield my own truncheon, I explained to her that “life is too short to spend it reading bad books.” Banned.
Until kindergarten, when my daughter was able for the first time to select books from the school library without parental interference. In what I recognized immediately as revenge served very, very cold, she came home week after week with a Berenstain Bears book. Which I read to her night after night after night after night.
Looks like the forces of good won out after all.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.