Every so often a news article or something will pop up about a “banned” book and there will be a huge controversy surrounding those who want the book boycotted and those who think it should be embraced.
Sometimes it’s a classic, like Huckleberry Finn, and one side wants to ban it because of its cultural stereotypes and language demeaning minorities, while the other side wants to uphold it as an icon of our nation’s history.
Other times it’s a more modern story embracing sexual experimentation in adolescence, and one side hails it as progressive and inclusive while the other decries it for being inappropriate for the age group it targets.
In the Christian community, we have no shortage of these debates. There are those who think children should be protected from the world and their innocence maintained for as long as possible, and there are those who believe children should know what’s out there so they’re not tempted to experiment later on, and there is everyone in between.
One of the most powerfully divisive book series, one that has been discussed frequently and at length on this blog alone, is the Harry Potter series. Most of us on this blog tend to be pro-Harry, to varying degrees and for various reasons, but we can certainly understand the reasons against it, even though we may disagree.
This issue has recently come up for me because of my kids’ school. My children attend a Christian school. The school uses a program called Accelerated Reader to track reading goals and comprehension. Every book in the system is rated for grade level, and there is a comprehension quiz attached to it. Their teachers test them to determine what grade level range they should be reading in and how many points they need to acquire for the quarter. The kids read a book, then log into the AR program and take a quiz on that book, and then receive points for reading and taking the quiz. Bigger, more advanced books are worth more points, and if they might not get all the points if they don’t answer all the questions correctly.
As I understand it, the program itself has various settings that each school can choose in order to make the program conform to their specific needs and preferences. One of those settings includes not allowing credit for certain books. Our librarian has a set of standards that conform to the school’s statement of faith regarding what books are not allowed, based on content, the author’s other works and whether they’re blatantly against our faith, and so on.
Harry Potter is one such series that has been added to our school’s blacklist.
There are various reasons behind it, beyond just the inclusion of magic, most of which I personally disagree with. I understand that as a Christian school, they need to draw a line somewhere. The fact that Harry Potter is such a successful franchise actually means that it draws more scrutiny than other similar stories, so the controversy itself is much, much louder and the opinions much more vocal, and so institutions like my kids’ schools have to be extra careful to appease the more vocally conservative parents and board members who are opposed to this book.
The issue I have with this type of censorship, however, is that it is so very legalistic. One person’s standards become the standard for everyone else. Instead of telling the parents it’s up to them individually to approve what books their children can read, it dictates one specific point of view to everyone.
I would certainly support the school not buying the questionable material, thus supporting things that go against their code of ethics and making it accessible to students perhaps without their parents’ knowledge, but if a parent personally approves of a book and allows their child to read it, that should be their decision.
And of course, parents can do so.
But the children don’t get school credit for it.
Which, in the case of my second son at least, means that he won’t read it at all.
This is highly frustrating for me as a parent, because I want my kids to be readers. My first and third kids are no problem. My oldest reads everything, especially if one of his friends recommends it. I have actually been guilty of encouraging a girl to suggest a book to him, knowing that if the recommendation came from her rather than me, he’d be much more likely to read it (and he was and he did read it and he enjoyed it). My third child, too, will read everything in sight. She’s read about four entire chapter books since yesterday.
But my second born, he’s a little more difficult. It’s much harder to catch his attention, and harder still to keep it. There are very few books he actually wants to read, and even if I know he would enjoy it, convincing him to try it is hard. We read the first Harry Potter out loud as a family, and of course they were hooked, so this son read the second book before he became aware that he wouldn’t get school credit for it.
And then he stopped.
Even though he likes it and wants to read it, he won’t, because he doesn’t see the point in reading something he’s not going to get credit for. It’s a waste of time for him. (And it’s not just Harry Potter–there have been a few different series that he’s enjoyed, but then couldn’t get credit for so he gave up.) So instead we go through the approved reading lists and I tell him all the other books I think he’d enjoy and why they’re so good and try to convince him that he’ll like them, and enforcing reading time because he has to read whether he likes it or not.
But I don’t like doing that. I want him to enjoy reading. I don’t want it to be a chore for him. I don’t want to have to force him. I want him to get lost in a book and develop a love for discovering new worlds and new characters. And that starts by finding some things you like and branching out from there. The more a person reads, the more they enjoy reading, and the more they’re willing to try reading. If my son got the chance to enjoy reading, by being allowed (and by “allowed” in this context of course I mean getting credit for it), then in the future he’d be more likely to enjoy reading something else and his love of reading would grow.
So, while a part of me understands the school’s stance and their need for standards, several other parts of me are frustrated by the legalism and dictatorship. I feel like it’s hampering my ability to do what’s best for my son, and that it’s harming my son’s learning. I would much prefer a policy that allowed for a little more freedom and personal accountability rather than adhering to the loudest voices of dissent.
What do you think? Do you think certain books should be censored? What topics and content levels should be censored? Are there standards that should be upheld for different age groups? Where would you draw the line?