Why Your Kid Should Read Banned Books

Banned Books Week gives families a chance to celebrate reading, talk about censorship, and decide for themselves what's appropriate for kids to read. By Regan McMahon
Why Your Kid Should Read Banned Books

What do The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and The Adventures of Captain Underpants have in common? At one time or other, someone has tried to ban them from classrooms and public or school libraries.

The American Library Association (ALA) -- champions of free access to books and information -- launched Banned Books Week in 1982 to celebrate the freedom to read. Libraries, bookstores, publishers, and teachers across the country use the week -- this year it's Sept. 23-29 -- to highlight great books that people have banned and to spark a discussion about censorship. At Common Sense Media, we think reading 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.

The Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage has been banned for its graphic depictions of war. The edgy 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. Profanity and an explicit scene featuring oral sex got Looking for Alaska (John Green) on the banned list. And Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been banned for religious irreverence, discussion of masturbation, and offensive language, including the N-word.

Who's challenging these books? Parents, school board members, individuals, groups -- yet what's considered offensive may depend on the era or specific community. As the ALA argues, these challenges pose a threat to freedom of speech and choice -- freedoms that Americans hold dear and 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 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 an eye-opening 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.

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About Regan McMahon

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Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than a decade. 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... Read more

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Comments (24)

Adult written by Consolecabin

No screening ever . If something is too adult children simply won't read it because it will be boring.How else do kids learn to discriminate good reading except by reading a lot
Teen, 14 years old written by Talia Spencer

Okay, all the parents in the comments section need to calm down. First off, this article is NOT promoting the distribution of clearly age-inappropriate books to preschoolers. You controlling what your own kid is exposed to is not a problem, as long as it's within reason. What IS a problem, however, is the fact that some parents/schools/governments think that they have the authority to ban EVERYONE'S kids from reading controversial books. Sure, one person's fourteen-year-old may need to be kept away from Thirteen Reasons Why at all costs die to their inability to take the mature themes in the book seriously, but another person's fourteen-year-old may already know about these topics from parents and the news and is mature enough to handle swearing, sexual references, and suicide. The point is, if a child or teen is mature enough to handle certain content, and the parents are aware of this fact and allow the child or teen in question to read the book, then you do NOT have the right to stand in that child's way. Same goes for movies and TV shows. If little Susie from across the street grew up on the Hunger Games and South Park as opposed to your own child's Baby-Sitter's Club and SpongeBob Squarepants, that is none of your concern. You can't protect your kid forever. Soon, they'll be adults themselves and will be exposed to mature topics the moment they step out of the house. If you want to keep your child from reading Of Mice and Men or Ender's Game, take the book away and get a refund or tell the librarian not to let your kid wander away from the children's section. Because if Harry Potter isn't on the shelves, you'll have an entire fandom trying to bite your face off. And I'm pretty sure being ridiculed and attacked by strangers and being in the middle of a media controversy is much worse than your son Jimmy whining about it for a couple of weeks. Bottom line: Only protect the kids with the same last name and DNA as yourself. Leave the rest of us alone. Less trouble that way.
Teen, 15 years old written by Pinkpoint13

I do not agree with this. Not ALL banned books are suitable for kids or teens to read! There are few that are not suitable even with parent guidance. A few of these books could send a negative message and influence to teens and maybe even younger adults too! Common Sense Media highly encourages ALL banned books for teens, which could be like highly encouraging a graphic movie that sets a terrible influence, and could confuse some teens, if they watch it without parent guidance just for the sake of apparently educational elements! Libraries have the OBLIGATION to ban some of these books from their shelves since teens or kids will check them out and read them on their own, and their parents are very unlikely to be involved in their teens reading. Other banned books are good and have lots to offer for everyone when parents read them with their kids. It is unfortunate is THESE books are not on library shelves, but with any banned book, if parents really want their kids to read it, they are free to buy it from discount sites or stores!
Teen, 16 years old written by KekistanPepe123

Sorry, but you are sadly mistaken. If you were a parent, and your child enjoyed watching "Caillou" but some board made it so that only at a certain age he could watch "Caillou", you would be upset because you didn't have control on what your kid could or couldn't watch. Same thing goes for books. Parents should have enough judgement skills to make sure that what their kid is reading, they shouldn't need someone else to make that decision for them. I should know, my parents did the exact same thing. I'm not some heartless monster that doesn't care about emotions because I read "Captain Underpants". I'm a kind, loving, person that enjoys life, which you apparently aren't because you're complaining about children's books on a website.
Adult written by Donn L.

There are a number of good reasons why no book should be banned, but there are many books which do not deserve to be read.
Teen, 17 years old written by csreviewer

As my dear English teacher said, “There aren’t bad books, but educational ones,” I wholeheartedly agree! Dealing with today’s culture, it seems that some people get offended easier. This applies to the book world as well. To protest books because of material deemed too inappropriate for some readers destroys the purpose of reading to begin with. One should naturally read books that they don’t agree with because it provokes thought. How can one form an opinion—both good or bad—when they see the argument from one side? Each individual simply cannot deem something to be good or bad, or even educational if they are forced not to have access to said object. They should have the choice and opportunity to discover what they believe themselves. Everyone should be able to read anything they fancy, as long as they are capable of understanding what they are reading. Although I respect those who support banning books, I feel that each individual should be able to make that choice and discernment for themselves.
Adult written by Kelly M.

My first three comments were deleted because my opinion differs from that of the author. I stated my opposition to her beliefs in a respectful fashion, yet Common Sense Media has deleted them. I am very disappointed in this website, shame on you, Common Sense Media. I believe we have a right, a responsibility and an obligation to curate the media we present to our children just as games and toys are provided when a child is developmentally ready.
Parent of a 7 year old written by Frannie Ucciferri

Hello Kelly, Thanks for bringing this to our attention. At Common Sense, we believe in sanity, not censorship. When comments are flagged as inappropriate by our users, they are temporarily deleted until someone from our team can review them. If they violate our Community Guidelines, then they're deleted. If if they don't, they're restored to the page. Usually this is a quick process, so I apologize that your comments weren't restored in a timely fashion. Your comments should once again be visible on the page. We appreciate that you took the time to comment in the first place! -- Frannie Ucciferri | Common Sense Media
Parent written by Dan G.

A parent's primary responsibility is to raise their children to be good. To the extent that a book can help that, wonderful. If a particular book does not help to raise a child to be good, then only irresponsible parents who don't care about their children would give it to them to read. Books take us places. Let us only take our children to places that are good for them to go. And let us respect everyone's opinion about the suitability of a book for our children. To only respect one side (and seemingly a very permissive one at that) is irresponsible, unfair, and conceited.
Parent of a 14 and 15 year old written by Mary C.

Brava, Ms. McMahon. The only book I can think of that absolutely, 100% needs to be banned is the how-to book for pedophiles that popped up on the net a couple of years ago. I'm sure there are other how-to's that need to go as well, but fiction? Nope. It's up to the parents of course, but the idea of poo-poo'ing books before reading them myself is pretty much against my religion.
Parent of a 10 year old written by Nwasson

Again, IMO, "banned" books are so subjective. They are meant to be read with your child and discussed. I grew up with Judy Blame, reading about racism Iggie's House and body shaming in Blubber and EVERYTHING in Are You There God? It's Me , Margaret. It's wonderful to find a book that makes you feel like you're not weird, or different or alone in your feelings or thinking.
Adult written by librariancheryl

“Our free society depends on the right to access, evaluate, and voice a wide range of ideas. Book bans chill that right, and increase division in the communities where they occur. This Banned Books Week, we’re asking people of all political persuasions to come together and celebrate Our Right to Read.” --Banned Book Weeks Chair Charles Brownstein
Parent written by clea9399

I was surprised, and extremely disappointed, by this article, especially on this particular website, which helps parents decide, for themselves, what is best for their children. The ALA regularly heavily promotes extremely controversial works for young children, as though they are the authority on what children need to learn about, and even believe, rather than them being taught by their own parents. During "Banned Books Week," classics, such as Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc., are prominently mentioned as though all banned books are as deserving as these to be read, and that all controversial books have equal merit. The not-so-secret agenda of the ALA is to promote anti-family books that feature graphic homosexual and pedophilia themes. They justify this by saying it portrays real life, and is therefore important. While the ALA may have, at one time, been a reliable measure of what constitutes good literature, I personally steer clear of anything with their stamp of approval, as well as most of the children's award winning books (Newbery Award, specifically). With millions of books in print, there is absolutely no reason to compromise a child's mind and soul with the garbage that is being passed off as literature today. Shame on you for this article, Common Sense Media.
Parent of a 8, 13, and 15 year old written by Charles B.

Here are my thoughts and opinions on this topic... I believe far too much "normalization" of some behaviors DOES cause harm to children. I don't want my kids going around calling people names, thinking oral sex is ok, or that is ok to use racial slurs when referring to people of other cultures/races. As a parent, it IS my responsibility to police, and yes BAN some media my children have access to.
Adult written by Kelly M.

I fully agree with you, Charles., many of us do. But, you'll notice that Common Sense Media is deleting the comments of those who share our opinions.
Parent of a 12 and 14 year old written by trickymom

Thank you, Regan! I agree with you! I also have a lot of librarians for friends and relatives. I do share some parents' fears, and there are certain books I found uncomfortable reading. For one, The Microbe Hunters. It's an excellent, fascinating story of the origins of the discovery of germs and their connection to illness. It uses a lot of racist language, though. When I read it, it was like a constant slap in the face: I found it distracting. I worked for the publisher, and suggested a re-edit. I haven't read the new edition. I wonder if they did it? That book would be wonderful for high schoolers if it were possible to not be distracted by the language. I certainly don't agree with banning the book, only that a fascinating story is unnecessarily, in my opinion, made inaccessible. My kids have been brought up to talk about sensitive issues--I'm the kind of mother who pauses (and ruins) movies by saying "what do you think...?" In sum, some books make us very uncomfortable--but there's nothing wrong with stepping outside one's comfort zone! Thanks for your article.
Adult written by Kelly M.

I am so thoroughly disappointed by this article, and Common Sense Media's promotion of it. As parents we all have a right and obligation to expose our children to media as we see fit. We also have an obligation to shield our children from some of the disgusting media content that exists in the world. To say that, "Today's edgy is tomorrow's classic" is opening the door for drugs, sex, etc to continue to rush in at a younger and younger age. We could let the parents purchase the book with the explicit oral sex scene on their own for their children, should them deem in appropriate. And we could choose not to have it on the shelves of the library in our public schools. To assume that children will read these books and it will give them something to relate to is one sided and short sighted. Possibly are the children reading these books and acting in this manner because they are assuming it is "the norm"? If we fill the shelves of our public school libraries with these books, what message are we sending them? I believe that if we know better, we have an obligation to do better. I do hope that this author does better in the future, better for our children and their future. Let's give them more to aspire to.
Teen, 14 years old written by AldultishGambino

I agree that not all books are appropriate for kids and I think that parents should have the ability to keep there kids from reading books that they deem inappropriate but, I don't think that a parent who believes a book is wrong should be able to ban for all kids. Parents have the right to control what their kids read but, not other kids. If you think that a book is really immoral and wrong then you could ask your school library to only allow kids with a signed permission slip to read it like they did for the hunger games at my school for grades 1st-4th.
Parent of a 8, 13, and 15 year old written by Charles B.

K M, I couldn't agree with you more. It IS our responsibility as parents to curate the media our children are exposed to. I think there is too much "mainstreaming" and "normalization" of behaviors that ARE harmful to our children, and my guess is most of it comes from the media. Check out NCOSE (http://endsexualexploitation.org) as well as FightTheNewDrug (http://fightthenewdrug.org/) for numerous articles about this topic.

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