Banned Books Week got off to a rousing start this year with the publication of a letter from Wesley Scroggins, Missouri State University professor of management, in The Springfield News-Leader. The letter, "Filthy books demeaning to Republic education," listed books on Scroggins's hit list, including Speak, Slaughterhouse Five, and Twenty Boy Summer, all of which are on the syllabus at the local public high school or recommended reading in the school library. Scroggins enumerated some of the books' offensive material, imploring parents and taxpayers to ask if this was how they wanted to spend their money and educate their children.
Scroggins was subsequently excoriated across the blogosphere for his censorship, misreading of several of the books' themes, and poor writing. On one publishing blog, a literary agent's assistant offered her tongue-in-cheek editorial services and went through Scroggins's letter line by line with suggestions on sentence construction, punctuation, and grammar. (The link is here; as a warning, it contains language that might be offensive to some. I'll leave the decision to censor or not up to readers.)
If nothing else, Scroggins's letter shows that we're still pretty divided on the subject of banned books, especially about what is and is not appropriate material for children.
Last year, in her Her.meneutics post about Banned Books Week, Ruth Moon concluded, "If we are going to get up in arms (rightly, I would argue) about banning things that are offensive to others, we at times have to be willing to take criticism and swallow offense ourselves. If all truth really is God's truth, well, the truth can set us free, if we let it." I spent some time thinking about truth and its role in literature—specifically children's literature—last week, as I examined some of my own book-banning practices.
I shocked myself by becoming a book-banner the week I learned I was pregnant with my first child. At the time, I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in children's literature, and some of the books subsequently adorning my shelves I didn't think suitable for my coming child. I wanted to have an open-shelf policy in our household of a thousand or so books, so any children's book I didn't want a young child to read, I simply put in a box. Just for now.
Those books remain boxed. After my daughter was born, the boxed collection started to grow, with books I found too scary (The Story of Babar), too intense (The Greedy Python), or too theologically shaky (One World, Many Religions). I wasn't putting them away forever. Just for now. Things got complicated when my daughter started reading at a very early age. Like many parents of early readers, I found that books that were otherwise fine suddenly weren't, when they were being read by a child much younger than their intended audience. I re-read the Little House on the Prairie series from her perspective and nearly had a heart attack. Narnia became a wasteland of bloodshed and violence. Even Christopher Robin was running around shooting things with his gun. Clearly I needed to take a deep breath and regroup before my shelves were stripped bare.
I still keep a close eye on what comes into our home, but for the most part I'm letting my children take the lead, and answering questions as they arise. ("Mommy, what's suicide?" my daughter asked the other day. Calvin and Hobbes made a premature return to the library.) I still censor some material (Christianity Today is routinely banned; the irony is not lost on me), we've had a few "when you're older" discussions, and we've worked through some serious topics with hugs and sometimes tears. For now, it seems to be working, and I hope I'm laying a foundation of trust that will allow my children to continue to come talk to me about what they read as they grow up.
Earlier this year, my 5-year-old daughter asked me to read her a chapter of Betsy-Tacy, a book that somehow, in my voracious childhood reading, I hadn't read. We read a few chapters together and my interest waned, the completely drama-free adventures of Betsy and Tacy too plotless for my taste. But it seemed a perfect book for my daughter, and for weeks she walked around with her nose between the pages.
Then one night she asked me to read her another chapter from the book, a chapter called "Easter Eggs." I browsed through it while she got ready for bed. Tacy's baby sister Bee gets sick. Tacy's mom is sad. Tacy's baby sister dies. My daughter was brushing her teeth as I read the description of the baby's funeral, horrified:
After a while Tacy said, "It smelled like Easter in the church. Bee looked awfully pretty. She had candles all around her." "Did she?" asked Betsy. "But my mamma felt awfully bad," said Tacy. Betsy said nothing. "Of course," said Tacy, "you know that Bee has only gone to Heaven." "Oh, of course," said Betsy. But Tacy's lip was shaking.
My book-banning self sprang into high gear, and I ran out of my daughter's room with book in hand. By the time she was done brushing her teeth, the book was gone. But I knew I couldn't keep it from her for forever. I lost sleep over it, I prayed about it, I talked with my husband. Finally, I told my daughter that I wanted to talk to her about Betsy-Tacy.
"It's pretty sad, Mommy," my daughter offered. She'd already ready the chapter. She already knew that Tacy's baby sister dies.
"Sometimes babies die," my daughter continued. "Sometimes they die after they're born, and sometimes they're born when they're too little to live. That's why I'm glad we get to see them again in Heaven."
Perhaps it's time to get Babar back out of the box.