It’s Banned Books Week and of course our columnist is anti-censorship. But boy would she love to tear up the pages of these beloved kids' tomes.
It’s Banned Books Week again, a special week set aside for librarians, teachers, and parents to bond over the horror that is censorship. Yay for reading! Boo for censorship!
Sure, there are some books so reprehensible they shouldn’t be found in classrooms or in the public library shelves. I’d argue that these include every vintage racist book, including the horrific old counting books with titles like Ten Little N—–s, the fake-Indian fake-memoir The Education of Little Tree, and any other book whose only value is to historians. The literary value here can’t begin to overcome the pointless bigotry on display. Children do not need access to them.
Many enlightened parents agree that children should be exposed to the widest variety of good literature out there, even if there are times when we have to provide a little context to explain old-school racism: I’m looking at you, Roald Dahl and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Oh, and you too, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Still, these are books many of us still read to our children, if with judicious editing and thoughtful discussion sessions.
Most of us look down on the kinds of parents who really want to ban books, whether it’s the prudes who are afraid of Judy Blume’s direct approach to menstruation and sexuality, the religious maniacs who fear that Harry Potter will turn their kids onto the occult, or the wackaloons who have various inexplicable issues (it “doesn’t promote any appropriate values,” one writes) with a book as perfect as Where the Wild Things Are.
Indeed, several classic books have been banned by various school districts. We are not philistines like that.
And yet, in our secret hearts, most parents have a children’s book or two that we would gladly banish from the face of the Earth. In a (very) unscientific poll of random people I know on Facebook, a few widely despised titles were mentioned again and again.
1. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is one of the most loathed children’s books out there. One of my friends calls it “a manual for abuse,” and all agree that it depicts a sick, codependent relationship between the tree and the boy. My friend Aimee, a mother in Kansas, says that she believes it’s a useful book, “mostly because I think that it provides a great opportunity for discussion about how some relationships that seem so great in the beginning can truly suck the life out of you, and it’s okay to tell someone to fuck off and get a new buddy.” Oddly, one group of readers has always loved this book: Men who as little boys were their mother’s favorites.
2. Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch, is another widely hated book about the mother-son bond. As my friend Jeanne, a mother in New York, points out, “It’s particularly disturbing when the mother sneaks into her adult son’s house to snuggle with him. Helicopter moms, eat your heart out.” Another friend, a mom to two kids in Georgia, says her kids call it “the stalker book.”
3. Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny, is hated by many—even parents who adore Brown otherwise. It’s considered by many as another book about mothers who go too far is, or as one friend points out, as with The Giving Tree and Love You Forever, it’s about “overlove.”
4. Nancy Tillman’s On the Night You Were Born is “like a child’s primer in sociopathy,” says my friend Jessie, who has two sons. “On the night you were born, you brought wonder and magic to the world. The moon stayed up till morning. Polar bears danced.” Lines like this seem designed to confirm young children’s ideas about being the center of the universe. “Because there had never been anyone like you … ever in the world” is going to be cold comfort when your child has to go to school and learn to share and take turns. Especially when every kid there is convinced the polar bears danced for him.
5. Amelia Bedelia, a character and series begun by Peggy Parish (and continued by her nephew after her death), appeals to kids for the humor in Amelia’s extremely literal interpretations of her employers’ idiomatic instructions (“draw the drapes,” “dust the furniture”). For those of us old enough to know better, the books boil down to laughing at your cleaning lady. Not cool, not cool at all. And what about kids whose parents are the cleaning lady (and man)?
6. Another ubiquitous series is the one starring the Berenstain Bears, which has mushroomed since 1962 to include over 300 titles, which, Wikipedia points out, “have sold approximately 260 million copies in 23 languages.” Fun fact: There is also a television series, featuring a countrified earworm of a theme song by Lee Ann Womack and the vocal talents of a young Michael Cera. Why do so many hate the Bears? For some, it’s the extremely heavy-handed moral lessons; for others, the hard-core gender roles.
“I don’t believe banning books is okay, but if the entire Disney princess oeuvre could disappear from the Earth, that would please me,” one friend, mother to a daughter in Brooklyn, said. Another adds, “Curious George is just a jerk.”
Literary tastes are very individual, and that is as true for children’s books as for any other type. As another friend points out, what kids love at any moment isn’t necessarily going to flavor their literary tastes forever. “The good thing, I think, is that most of the lousy books have gone right out of my head while the great ones remain indelibly. Steig, Sendak, Dahl—an endless list. I do remember how my mother loathed reading Curious George aloud. She would lapse into a mocking, saccharine tone, punctuated with heavy sighs.”
As much as some books seem universally loved—Goodnight Moon, say, or the work of Dr. Seuss—there exist devout haters who can’t stand them. And other books, while they try parental patience mightily, still manage to appeal to the kids (in my family, this was true of the loathsome Berenstain Bears).
This is where our parental privilege comes into play. Even if we’d never, ever try to ban a book in the public sphere, we feel perfectly comfortable banning certain titles from our own homes—and we should. The books we read to our kids, the books we encourage them to read, and the books they see us reading all reflect our core values—aesthetic, moral, human.
At the same time, I think kids have the right to subvert parental bans when they get some money in their grubby little hands at the Scholastic book sale. What could be more exciting than challenging our authority? What could please us more than that they try to do it with books?
Putting aside your feelings about censorship—this is about personal libraries and books you can’t bear to read to your kids at beditme—if you could ban any book from your children’s reading list, what would it be, and why? Tell us in the comments.
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