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Why Your Kid Should Read Banned Books

The battle over what books kids have access to in schools and public libraries across the U.S. is heating up. We don't think censorship is the answer.

What do The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, Dear Martin, The Fault in Our Stars, The Great Gatsby, Maus, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Captain Underpants have in common? At one time or another, someone has tried to ban them from classrooms and public or school libraries.

At Common Sense Media, we think reading so-called banned books offers families a chance to celebrate reading and promote open access to ideas, both of which are keys to raising a lifelong reader.

Why do people ban books? Often it's for religious or political reasons: An idea, a scene, or a character in the book offends their religion, sense of morality, or political view. Some folks feel they need to protect children from the cursing, morally offensive behavior, or racially insensitive language in a book. Or they think a book's content is too violent or too sexual.

Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) has been banned for its graphic depictions of war. Teen best-seller The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) has been banned for its descriptions of sexual behavior and alcohol and drug use. Award-winning young adult novel Dear Martin (Nic Stone) was removed from the curriculum at a Missouri high school because it dealt with racial profiling by police.

Who's challenging these books? Parents, school board members, individuals, groups -- yet what's considered offensive may depend on the era or specific community. These challenges pose a threat to freedom of speech and choice -- freedoms that Americans hold dear and that are worth standing up for.

Here are five good reasons for kids to read banned books:

Today's edgy is tomorrow's classic. Original work pushes boundaries in topic, theme, plot, and structure. What's shocking today may be assigned in English class five or 10 years from now if it has true literary merit. The Great Gatsby is a high school staple today, but was shocking when its gin-soaked pages were published in 1925.

There's more to a book than the swear words in it. Many books have been banned for language that your kid has encountered before or will soon. Even potty humor (like in Captain Underpants) has caused people to call for a ban. A character's language may add realism to the story, or it may seem gratuitous or distracting -- your kid can evaluate.

Kids crave relatable books. Banned books often deal with subjects that are realistic, timely, and topical. Young people may find a character going through exactly what they are, which makes it a powerful reading experience and helps the reader sort out thorny issues like grief, divorce, sexual assault, bullying, prejudice, and sexual identity. The compelling teen rebels story The Outsiders has been banned, yet many middle schoolers cite it as the book that turned them into a reader.

Controversial books are a type of virtual reality. Exploring complex topics like sexuality, violence, substance abuse, suicide, and racism through well-drawn characters lets kids contemplate morality and vast aspects of the human condition, build empathy for people unlike themselves, and possibly discover a mirror of their own experience. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of an African American family facing racism in 1930s Mississippi, yet it's been banned for having racial slurs.

They'll kick off a conversation. What did people find so disturbing in a book that they wanted to ban it, and to what extent was it a product of its time, or did it defy social norms of its era? For example, Harry Potter was banned by people who felt it promoted magic. Reading a challenged book is a learning experience and can help your kids define their own values and opinions of its content.

Regan McMahon
Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than 20 years. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on deadline in 48 hours. Regan is also a published author whose book Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports grew out of her experience keeping up with two athletic kids. She earned a B.A., teaching credential, and master's degree in the teaching of French at the University of California at Berkeley -- reflecting a passion she's had for all things French since reading Eloise in Paris as a child.