Sep 27, 2009

The Sunday Salon - Freedom to Read

The Sunday Read Banned Books

Yesterday marked the beginning of Banned Books Week, and like many other bloggers I'll be participating by reading a book that has been challenged or removed from a library. At the beginning of the month, I joined the Banned Books Challenge at The Biblio Blogzine, and last week I posted my thoughts on Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block. Right now I'm reading The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson. You can read more about the controversy surrounding the book (as well as get a taste of her delicious sarcasm) at Maureen Johnson's blog.

I was a bit puzzled by this article on Banned Books Week (which I found via Chris), as it seems to miss the point quite spectacularly. Petitions for a book to be removed from a library are not "attempts by parents to guide their children's education." They're more like attempts to have libraries do someone's parenting for them; to have libraries parent every single kid who uses them according to the petitioner's scale of values. One parent's questionable material is another's gold, obviously enough. But then again, it seems that this is not really that obvious.

I do think that up to a certain age (and what that age will be will vary from kid to kid) parents have the right to have a say in what their own kids do or don't read. But I don't think unsupervised reading is disastrous. I grew up in a house with plenty of books and nobody who much minded what I took from the shelves. This did result in a few episodes of precocious reading, but hey, I didn't turn out as badly as that. Anyway, I thought I'd share a few of those episodes with you:

The first adult book I ever remember reading was The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils. I can't remember how old I was - between eleven and thirteen, most likely - and I think I picked it up simply because I was bored one summer. Possibly also because the synopsis made it sound vaguely forbidden: the book tells the story of a love affair between a man and a courtesan who is dying of tuberculosis. But this being nineteenth-century literature, there's nothing terribly explicit about it.

As you might expect, most of the book went over my head, but I do have an interesting memory of reading it: the day I finished it, I had some trouble sleeping. Every time I was close to drifting off, I'd start to have dreamlike thoughts in the language of the book, and that would upset me so much I'd wake up again. This has happened to me several times now, and I quite like it when it does. I know that a book's had an impact on me when I dream in its language, or when I dream about reading it. But back then, it really disturbed me. I felt that the book's language was replacing my own, that I could no longer think my own thoughts. Has anything like this ever happened to you before?

Not too long after The Lady of the Camellias, I read Dracula by Bram Stoker. I was home sick from school for a week, and I read it under the covers, feverishly and a little tentatively. I hadn't been told I couldn't read it, not exactly, but a few weeks before my parents had rented the movie version, and they had waited until I went to bed to watch it. I had peered at the TV screen from the hallway (ah, the advantages of a living room with glass doors), unsure of whether or not I wasn't allowed to be there, until I got too sleepy to care about surreptitiously watching it anymore. But I was curious, and so I read the book. I didn't find it too scary, and I liked it. I didn't love it until later on, and I was quite disappointed that it wasn't more of a romance, which, from what I'd seen of the movie, I was expecting it to be. Needless to say, this is not an opinion I share with my younger self anymore.

Of course, two nineteenth century classics are hardly American Psycho, and I know that something more explicit, especially in terms of violence, could have had a different impact on me. But I think that most of the time, kids are the first to walk away from things that make them truly uncomfortable.

Tell me, did you ever stumble upon any books too mature for you when you were a child or teen? Any stories to share?

Censor LOLcat

Happy Banned Books Week, everyone!


  1. I look back at some of the books my mom let me read as a kid and know that she had no clue what they were about. Like when I picked up Judy Blume's Tiger Eyes from the library. I was 11 or so, and that book is full of sex, violence, and binge-drinking. My mom still probably has no idea.

    I think there are bound to be times when you don't realize what your kids are reading. Last year, Morrigan was reading a children's series about a dragon that, when he explained the plot to us, turned out to be an odd pro-gang pro-thieves sort of thing. ?? I think it was just meant to be adventurous, but Morrigan was starting to think the life of a thief, a pirate, a gangmember was fun and exciting. We said no to the rest of the series.

    I'm sure there'll be other books like that. We DO have to guide our kids' reading when they're this age. But I'm not too worried when something slips through the cracks. I don't think reading Tiger Eyes (and others) hurt me growing up. :)

  2. I remember when I was 10, my mom gave me a book to read that I had a ton of sex in it! lol I censored myself and put it down after the first scene-now I tease Mom about it and she's just like 'oh well'. Needless to say, my mom wasn't a big fan of censorship. She's sitting next to me on the couch, and she said that I got most of my books from my elementary school's library, and when we went to the bookstore she directed me to the kids section, and that was that. She didn't always *approve* of the books I read (I loved horror books that killed people off in creepy yet inventive ways!), but as long as I didn't have nightmares, she left it up to me. :)

  3. So funny that Amanda mentioned Judy Blume. I'm pretty sure I've told you before about how my mom bought me Wifey when it came out. I must have been about 12. She had no clue it was an adult book and was loaded with sex; she just knew I'd always loved Judy Blume. Didn't hurt me one iota...but I was pretty popular with my friends for having it to pass around. ;)
    The first time something slipped through the cracks with Annie was Tithe. She was definitely a bit upset by it. It wasn't the allusions to sex that upset her, or the fact that it was gay sex, but the fact that it was abusive sex. I've tried to stop beating myself up for letting her read it. Of course, I'm sorry she was upset. But at the same time, after coming to me and our having a big talk about it, she's really learned to be much better at self-censoring. And I feel so good that she's willing to come talk to me whenever she reads something that upsets her or confuses her.

    Anyway, thanks for the link to the article...even though it pretty much just pissed me off. :/

    And YAY! I'd totally forgotten that I was "allowed" to start Dangerous Angels yesterday. Going to grab it off the shelf right now! :D

  4. I have a much older sister, and when I was little I would read absolutely anything. I definitely mooched several books from her that were far too mature for my 10-11 year old mind, but I was far too curious not to finish them.

    I had a hard time with American Psycho even as an adult because it was so violent. Maybe I'll try it again later...

  5. I remember reading Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews as a young teen and feeling a little guilty as my conservative parents wouldn't have approved. Now that I'm a parent myself I won't stop my boys from reading anything. I will just be happy they are reading.

  6. Yes, I remember. I used to go to our neighbour (she was in her 40s) and she was a fan of Danielle Steel books, so I was curious and picked up some of them and read some racy passages, but I didn’t really understand them, since I was little at that time. Obviously, these books weren’t made for children, but I was just too curious:)

  7. I found most of my favorite books under my older sister's bed. (e.g., Lady Chatterly's Lover) Somehow I knew how to find the "dirty" parts even though I had no idea what they meant. But under her bed was the best library in town, as far as I was concerned!

  8. When I look at the banned list, I am kind of shocked. I am all for freedom of reading. I for sure know that some Enid Blytons books are said to be racist as also few Tintin albums. I have read all and none the worse for it. And now my niece devours those and I don't find anything wrong with her way of thinking.

    In a way, most of the classics would fall into the banned list, as they are politically incorrect in the present context. So much for banned books!

    TSS: The past week in retrospect and on to the next one...

    TSS: The Locked Room by Paul Auster

  9. I missed the drug references in Lady Sings The Blues, the world in Go Ask Alice was foreign to me but I was sucked into the darkness of it.

    My parents didn't pay attention to what I read. They assumed it was all age appropriate and we didn't have a home library so I read pretty much was in the school and kids' sections in public libraries.

    I don't censor what my kids read. I can only thing of once telling my daughter she wasn't old enough and I can't remember the title and I didn't think she should read not because of the subject matter rather that I thought she wasn't likely to comprehend what she was reading. For the most part, like Ana says, a kid will often self-censor. I have suggested a few books that my youngest daughter simply wasn't interested in at one age, and I think it was because I introduced them to early. That doesn't happen often now. I simply leave books laying around. It's been an effective way to recommend books to my girls.

    In the library where I volunteer, our girls have seen and lived a lot so I am more apt to share what might be considered controversial. I do exercise some caution with the younger girls who are looking for titillating material but for the most part I direct them towards books they ask for. I am more likely not to give a girl a book because I fear the repercussions from the administration rather than thinking the book is actually inappropriate for the reader.

  10. My fave memory of an inappropriate reading experience was from Honors English when I was a JR in HS. We were required to read a book a week and so being tired of 'classics', I submitted a review of a Danielle Steele. I so appreciated my teacher's 'talk' with me - it was more about style and quality than content and she agreed to count it but I had to go back to the sug'd list. She was able to treat me with respect since she saw it was more a rebel thing to do than even I realized. I have a huge respect for great teachers!

  11. Amanda: I'm sure that the ones that slip through the cracks won't cause any damage - especially because your sons discuss what they read with you and Jason so openly!

    Eva: I knew this already, but your mom sounds awesome! And lol, there WAS something appealing about people getting killed in horrible and inventive ways in books, wasn't there? I've actually become more impressionable as I got older when it comes to things like that. I guess it's because now we understand the implications of things more?

    Debi: You did tell me about Wifey! And lol, the idea of you passing it around made me laugh :D I remember when Annie read Tithe - like I told you then, the fact that you had that conversation with her means so much.

    Through the Reading Glass: I haven't read American Psycho does sound too violent for me, and worse, pointlessly so.

    Bella: There's that side of it too - the danger that forbidding certain books might discourage reading altogether. But hopefully that won't happen, especially if parents provide alternatives.

    Andreea: That kind of curiosity is only natural. I also remembering reading a couple of Harlequin romances I borrowed from a friend, lol. The stories made me roll my eyes even then, but they did answer a couple of questions I had about the mechanics of things :P

    Jill: Your sister's private library sounds amazing!

    Guatami, that's very true. The whole canon would be banned. I don't see the point of trying to pretend prejudice doesn't exist by banning books. It's much better to read them and hope they open conversations that need to be had.

    Susan: What you said about fearing repercussions touches on something that I think is very important. People say that challenging books is not really censorship because most of the time they don't get removed from the library in the end. They forget the endless trouble this causes to librarians, the stress, the fear that they'll lose their jobs. And when you're creating fear and making people reluctant, well, that IS a form of censorship.

    Care: She does sound like an amazing teacher!

  12. I absolutely love my media specialist at my school. She orders everything! Just last week I checked and she had a copy of Tender Morsels on the shelves.

    It also helps me out for my classroom library. As of now I've got about four large bookshelves filled and if I have a book that might be a bit controversy (The Chocolate War) I double check if it's in our school library and breathe a sigh of relief. So far I haven't had any issues with what I put out there. At the most a kid might say, "Miss, there's a curse word in here." In which I always encourage them to put it aside if it offends them. But quite honestly, I take the stand that most of the language that they hear on regular television is more inappropriate and pointless than what can be found in books!

  13. My parents supported my reading when I was growing up being as they were big readers too and never told me I couldn't read any book I wanted to. I still remember my father pointing me to books for the answers to questions I had about various "grown-up" topics.

  14. I think what didn't help when I was a teenager was that there was a lack of YA books available. I felt like I was stuck in a void as I no longer wished to be seen reading children's books and the adult ones were too old for me. Now teenagers have so much more choice.

  15. I think I might have written about this experience here already - so sorry if I have -

    I found a book in the children's section of our library called "The Green Tower" or something similar.

    It turns out it was a truly dreadful bit of soft porn romance fantasy. Full of "he satisfied her deepest cravings repeatedly, and then took his turn." With many references to stallions. All happening on hilltops with menhirs etc.

    I asked the librarian to re-classify it to the adult section. I did feel uncomfortable doing it, but this puerile panting thing did not belong in the children's section.

  16. I remember once I really wanted to read this fat book that sat on the shelf in my elementary school classroom (my teacher had her own little collection in there). It was part of a series, some kind of western romance epics about pioneers settling different states. The teacher was concerned it might be over my head and said I had to ask my parents. I showed the book to my dad and he just shrugged and said he trusted me to judge for myself. Turns out there was a bit too much sex in those books for my taste, but I was so proud that my dad would let me read whatever I wanted.

  17. Strangely enough, I don't remember reading my first "adult" book, but I do remember reading another book. It was probably when I was in junior high, and I don't even remember the name of the book, and have only a vague recollection of its storyline. It was a typical high school "ugly duckling trying to find love" sort of story, I suppose. Except at one point, the main character got a book for Christmas from her older brother's friend (I don't even remember WHAT the book was), and the friend wrote something like, "Read books that are above your age level."

    Sorry for rambling and for the totally vague story, but that one blip always stayed with me, and after that I never worried about what section of the library I wandered into.

  18. Oh yes, I found many books too old for me! I found the Joy of Sex in parent's bedroom when I was 12 or 13; my father left copies of Playboy around the house when I lived with him as a teenager - I quickly learned to avoid the pictures and read the stories and jokes; Playboy used to publish a lot of fiction back in the 1970's, very good ones too. And, early bodice rippers - the earliest historical romances that hit the market in the 1970's, I read some when I was 14 and 15. They always featured rape or near-rape which I now realize wasn't really appropriate, especially the heroine didn't often suffer realistically (but I only realize this as an adult!) I got bored quickly of romances, though. Other than Judy Blume there wasn't much for teens back then, so there was a wide gap between kids books and adult books. i dont think it did me any harm, certainly, and it just made me all the more glad for fantasy and mystery books!

    As for censoring my kids....for me it depends on any violence involved. Which is funny, because we are reading some fairy tales at night, and about to move onto Grimm's retellings. I think it depends on how it's told; my daughter is allowed early Smallville, all Dr Who to see, but is not allowed Heroes or Lost.

    Good questions, Nymeth! And enjoy the banned Book challenge.

  19. Oh, here's the book I was trying to describe!

  20. My parents had no clue what I was reading. I think they were just happy I was reading. I did the usual tour of duty...Judy Blume, V.C. Andrews, Deen Koontz, Stephen King...all of it probably inappropriate for my age, but I didn't come away too damaged. I do screen some things that my 11 year old reads, but will eventually turn her loose in a few years.

    I find myself deeply disturbed, however, at the banning that goes on at their school. It is a Catholic school, so perhaps that explains a few things, but am amazed what gets pulled off the library shelves and the shelves of the book fair. The worst thing is that they have no clue what the books are about, they judge the content by the cover. Which we all know means virtually nothing. Ugh.

  21. I was pretty lucky when I was a kid. My mother was really strict about a lot of things, but she never questioned what I read. As a result I skipped young adult fiction for the most part and went right to the adult-stuff. If I didn't like it, I just put it aside. It's no different than now. If something bothers me, it is quite easy to just stop reading. I look at banned book lists and I have read so many books on them. I never even considered them 'wrong' at the time. If there weren't lists telling me that they were, I would have never even thought about a lot of the stuff that people were getting bent out of shape about.

    I will be pretty honest, though. A lot of the stuff that I read would horrify certain members of my family. Some people would say, for example, it is one thing to accept a member of the family that announces they are a lesbian, but it is an entire other thing to seek out books about the topic. Maybe that's why I read them? Because I know I am making people mad or uncomfortable? haha

    I got a bit off-topic, didn't I... Sorry!

  22. I dream about reading books all the time--especially when I fall asleep while I'm reading. I'll just be reading along, and then I'll think, "Hey, this doesn't sound like something that would be in the book," and then I'll wake up with the book open on my lap.

    When I was twelve, I started reading my grandfather's romance novels because I was bored out of my mind. My mother was horrified.

  23. I started reading Stephen King in the fifth grade...I think I must have been 11 at the time, and I turned out sort of ok ;) I jest, I think I turned out fine. But seriously, I think I just lucked out as far as banned books go.

    I actually went to a catholic school, and I would order Stephen King books from our school book orders! I ordered Misery in 5th grade when I was 11 years old and read it then and I remember feeling like I was reading something that was forbidden, but at the same time I fell in love with the book. It was around that age that I fell in love with novels. That was a good year actually. I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time that year and that book changed my life. That book has also been banned. If it weren't for A Wrinkle in Time, I don't know if I'd be the reader I am today.

    I truly loved this post though, Ana!! I have indeed dreamed in languages of books and it is a little disturbing, but I love it! It's actually really neat to be completely swept up in the world of a book. It's one thing to picture it in your head when you're reading it, but to dream it is to actually live that book and it's quite a special experience if you ask me!

  24. Nymeth, I only read a few of the comments but I saw your response to Amanda, and I think the key is for parents to *care* what their kids read enough to ask about it and talk about it. My son's only 2 years old, so I suppose I "censor" his books only because I choose what we read. But I hope we can always talk about it together.

    I don't think my mother knew all that I was reading when I was a young teen, but I don't think she'd have flipped out. She was the one to hand me I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (age 13?) and Beloved, for example, so I think she understood the need to read all kinds of things, even when the material is deep.

  25. I think that most of the time, kids are the first to walk away from things that make them truly uncomfortable.

    That's so true. I self-censored a lot when I was younger. If something bothered me, I either put the book down or skimmed over it. I know I did so many times, but the only specific example I can remember is ARROW'S FALL, the final book in Mercedes Lackey's first Valdemar trilogy. I was twelve, and there were a few scenes that dealt with rape and torture. They made me so uncomfortable that I skipped right over them.

    My parents were never too bothered about what I read, until I started reading Anne Rice when I was fifteen. My mother had never read Rice, but my father had tried to read IWtV several years previous. He told me he didn't want me reading such dark, uncomfortable books. I told him that was nice and kept on reading. There were no repercussions.

  26. I'm probably the poster child for reasons why you should read the books your children are reading first. I read so many books that were wildly inappropriate for my age. I remember reading a book when I was younger and I had to look up the word "fornication" because I didn't know what it meant. (Obviously too young to be reading that one!) ;) In all honesty though, I think that is part of the reason why I'm such a big reader today. Not because I could read whatever I wanted and read about sex, but because I had complete control over what I read. There was no one telling me that a book was too old or too young. I learned a lot of things from books, and it was all probably a good thing. And I think I turned out ok!

  27. Hear, hear!

    <3 Alexandre Dumas
    <3 Bram Stoker
    <)3 Brett Easton Ellis

    I had to skip over so many parts in American Psycho because it was so disturbing! I always wondered what the author was like to think of such gruesome torture scenes!

  28. I agree that parents are the responsible party, not schools or libraries.

    My mom was pretty strict when deciding which books I could and couldn't read. In fact, at one point she took away a Christian series I had because there was a drug reference in it. I do think she was a bit over the top, but at the same time it was her prerogative. She didn't expect anyone else to do her job for her.

  29. Great post, as usual. And I totally got sidetracked by all the links...and their links.

    I don't remember my mom ever telling me what I could or could not read. I was a pretty responsible kid, so reading was a good thing, not something that was exposing me to Bad Ideas.

  30. The only time I ever discouraged my son from reading a book was when I thought it might be too difficult for him and end up discouraging him. I told him what I thought and then let him make the final decision on whether to read it or not.

  31. Nobody censored what I read as a kid, with the result that at age 11 or so, I stumbled across John Updike's "Couples" in my parents' bedroom. Whoa!

    Never censored the College Student, either. Kept an eye on the really dark stuff that came along in the early teen years & asked "ok, what do you like about this?" It turned out all right: now we share books back & forth. Anything to keep the lines of communication open. Thanks for this, Nymeth!

  32. My parents encouraged reading since we were younger and they didn't really control what books we read back then. I suppose they trusted us and I'm just glad they did!

    Thanks for another lovely post, Nymeth!

  33. I don't really remember the first adult book I read, but my earliest memories of reading something that was not in my age group would be the Jeffrey Archer novels when I was about 10. My dad read them, and I would sneak them out of his room as I had already finished all the kids' books in the library (and Harry Potter hadn't come along).
    I remember this one time I watched a movie about vampires when I was 9. Actually my parents were watching the movie, and I was curious as to why they wouldn't let me watch it, so I hid behind the curtains of the next room and watched the movie. I had nightmares for a couple of nights after that, but nothing major. I agree that kids themselves will walk away from stuff that makes them feel uncomfortable. I would, anyway.

  34. My parents never stopped me from reading anything. They were very strict in all other areas of my life, so looking back this is quite remarkable. I know it's true because my first adult book was a romance novel and my parents actually bought them for me - my mom had to know what was in there because she read them herself. I don't appear to bear any scars from my precocious reading, although I do remember my middle school friends giggling over the contents of some of the books.

    A lot of debate against banned books week is appearing and it just stuns me. Even if the US government doesn't ban books, what's wrong with celebrating and encouraging our freedom to read whatever we like at any age? You're right in that parents do have the right to guide their own children, up to a certain point, but it's wrong for them to control what all the kids in the school/town can read.

  35. My mom would not allow me to read romance novels when I was young because her rationale is that I most likely would be influenced by them. I read a few sneakily and my mom was right. I was influenced by the ideals and my imagination did go a bit haywire. I, however, was too chicken to attempt any of those things I've read. I dreamt a lot. Oh well, but overall, reading did more great stuff for me than anything else.

  36. When I was really little (like 9), parents let me buy a book with a childish title but didn't look at it first. That was a mistake. I remember being confused by the first page and asked her about it. I don't remember what it said but she looked at me and said "You better let me have this." And then hid it away. It must have been pretty bad because I heard her talking about it with her sister. My mom isn't bothered by most books but even this one she couldn't read!

    As I got older I could read whatever I wanted. That was the only time I had a book taken from me. We share books now.

  37. I can see the sense in censoring movies for my children (at my house with teenagers we say yes to love and sex and no to violence and gore), but I don't see any sense in censoring what they read. As some commenters have pointed out, that can just make the book more alluring because forbidden. Help your kids cultivate taste instead.

  38. My parents let me roam the whole library so I started picking up "adult" books probably around 12 or so. There just didn't seem to be as many YA books as there are now. So of course I read lots of Judy Blume, V.C. Andrews and a bunch of horror stories. I'm glad for the freedom to read that I had.

  39. I need to figure something out about banned books week! I forgot about it, or at least I let the date creep up on me. Sigh. thanks for the reminder, and for putting me to shame! :-)

  40. I recall having the same reaction as Memory to Mercedes Lackey's books - I read all her books when I was twelve, and there was a lot of stuff that I skipped because it made me uncomfortable.

    My parents were very good about letting us read what we wanted. They did occasionally suggest that we wait until we were older to read certain books (like The Color Purple), and usually we listened; but I don't ever remember them actually saying I couldn't read a book. I guess they trusted us to self-censor, and I know I did.

  41. I love this post and completely agree with you. I'll try and guide my son's reading but I'd rather talk about things that he reads then attempt to hide them from him. Sometimes I think it's easier to learn thingsfrom reading about someone else's experience. Forever by Judy Blume springs to mind here.

    I read beyond my age as a child but the only book that ever gave me nightmares and really upset me was Black Beauty!

  42. I remember reading Flowers in the Attic when I was about 12, and being totally scandalized and enthralled with it. My parents weren't up on most popular literature and had no idea what I was reading, but I can imagine if they found out it would have been taken away from me. I also remember feeling much the same way about The Clan of the Cave Bear series when I was a little older. This was a great post, and for the record, I agree 100% with your views on censorship.

  43. I read The Handmaid's Tale in 5th grade. It ALL went over my head. I just remember being convinced that it was full of typos, because it didn't have quotation marks when the characters talked. Obviously, it damaged me. *grin*

  44. My parents didn't censor my reading and left my reading choices up to me. I do think that sometimes they were completely unaware of what I was reading though! My Mom stood up for me when I checked out "David Copperfield" (the full and unabridged version) from the library at age 8; the librarian thought I should read something more age appropriate. I secretly read (more like scanned for the titillating bits) Jacqueline Susann's "Once is Not Enough" when I was about 14. And I read "The Exorcist" when I was probably about 11. Then there was "The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane" by Laird Koenig which featured a child murderess; read that one as an adolescent. Someone probably should have been keeping an eye on me, but obviously I turned out just fine -- I'm not a raging nymphomaniac, I'm not a murderess, and I don't turn green and let my head spin around 360 degrees while screaming obscenities at priests ;o)

  45. My father had taught me to read pretty early (around 4) and when I started school my parents had a hard time with the teachers being upset that I was bored with grade appropriate books. By the time I was 9 I was reading only adult books, and my parents were always open to whatever I chose, as long as I also read the school required books too.
    It's strange now to realize how much my elementary teachers frowned upon accelerated reading - when nowadays they have kids going into junior high who have trouble making it through basic chapter books.


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