Sex, death and what banning books teaches our kids

It’s 2014. Does anyone really think they can ban a book and come out the hero?

The Riverside Unified School District in California banned The Fault in Our Stars — written by my namesake-sharing, fellow Kenyon College alumnus John Green — from its middle schools last week.

The decision was made in a 6-1 vote by the district’s Orwellian-named “Book Reconsideration Committee,” because apparently “book reconsideration committees” are things that actually exist outside of the first draft of 1984.

Yes, the Riverside School District has a formal process by which books can be banned.

Since 1988, the committee has reconsidered 37 books, and only two — The Fault in Our Stars; and The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier — have ever been taken off the shelves.

Clearly a dangerous man.

Clearly a dangerous man.

Members of the district’s school board, who you would think would have the final say before decisions like this are made, have responded with collectively incoherent statements ranging from: a) insisting they didn’t know the book was being considered for blacklisting; to b) wanting to revisit the issue; to c) deferring to the decision made by the middle school’s literary politburo.

Green, for his part, had this to say:

I guess I am both happy and sad.

I am happy because apparently young people in Riverside, California will never witness or experience mortality since they won’t be reading my book, which is great for them.

But I am also sad because I was really hoping I would be able to introduce the idea that human beings die to the children of Riverside, California and thereby crush their dreams of immortality.

It would be easy enough to leave the story there, but the story doesn’t end with Riverside.

School districts ban books deemed too mature, sexual, explicit, graphic or otherwise inappropriate every year, most often at the behest of parents. Along with Stars, John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska have also faced challenges from other districts in recent years, making Green the fourth most-challenged author in 2013.

And just in case there were any misconceptions about these challenges being anything other than prudish, absurd and arbitrary, the most-challenged author last year — and it wasn’t even close — was Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants series.

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Most of the books I’ve mentioned so far were more-banned than 50 Shades of Grey — a book notable for both its poor writing and semi-rapey BDSM scenes — so let’s not pretend like these decisions are based on promoting educational reading or systematic arbitration of appropriate content and themes.

No, these are the decisions made, in many if not most cases, by parents who want to stunt their kids education because they’re afraid of what might happen if they grow up. And you don’t grow up by reading 50 Shades of Grey; you grow up by laughing at, crying over, and grappling with ideas and themes that make you stop and think, whether it’s a bald fat man in tightey-whiteys fighting crime as a superhero or the notion that sometimes life will hurt, and eventually it will end.

It’s no coincidence that many of the parents who push for their kids to be shielded from certain icky, cootie-filled books often homeschooled their kids through elementary school, as was the case when a parent got The Fault in Our Stars taken off of a summer reading list in a Tampa Bay school district.

It’s also no coincidence that these parents overlap to a significant degree with the folks who opt their kids out of sex ed.

And it’s definitely no coincidence that the state with by far the most book challenges, Texas, is also the state pushing the hardest to put creationism in the science classroom.

You know who else thought books were dangerous? (Courtesy of the German Federal Archive via Wikipedia.)

You know who else thought books were dangerous? (Courtesy of the German Federal Archive via Wikipedia.)

They’re deathly afraid that their kids might snicker at some toilet humor. Or have an emotional reaction to death. Or become aware that they have genitals. Or, heaven *literally* forbid, experience independent thought that might, just might, lead them to question their (parents’) faith.

As a parenting practice, I can’t really object. You can homeschool your child and try as hard as you want to prevent them from being exposed to ideas you don’t like. But public school is a microcosm of the community you’re set to enter as an adult, and kids — humans, really — learn as much from their social or otherwise extracurricular environments as they do from formal practice. They’re paying closer attention to the novels they choose to keep by their bed than they are to the textbooks we put in their backpacks. That puts banning a #1 New York Times Bestseller and the most popular young adult novel in the country nearly (but not quite) on par with passing off creationism as biology.

Reading The Fault in Our Stars may teach your kids that teenagers dig sex, and sometimes they die for unrelated and unfair reasons. Banning The Fault in Our Stars teaches them that if someone’s ideas make them uncomfortable, it’s perfectly alright to whine and ruin it for everyone else.

If your middle schooler is already reading at a higher grade level than that, there’s no point in trying to parent at a lower one.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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