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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  • Jafafa Hots

    Most books are ok, just don’t let your kids read the Bible.

    That book has some seriously twisted shit in it.

  • Mike F

    I love whistling that tune. Puts a smile on my face.

  • BlueIdaho

    Well don’t leave Idaho off the book-banning wagon. This Spring a mormon grandmother (of course) threw such a hissy fit over her grandson having to read The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie the shool board voted to take it off the shelves. It’s a great story about a 14 year-old native boy in an all white school. This fall they voted to put it back on the reading list, but it can’t be checked out without the parent’s permission. Oh and the only reason she objected to the book was that it contained a brief reference to masturbation. Of course her grandson has never heard of that.

  • therling

    By the time they’re able to read, kids will have been using all the “seven dirty words” for years, and know a lot more about sex and other biological functions than their elders realize. This is about making some sanctimonious prick adults feel better about what good people they are rather than about “protecting the children.”

  • When I was seventeen and a freshman in college, my father and I stopped by our local library on one of my trips home. (Weekly trips to the library had been a family custom since I was old enough to check out books on my own.) I had just read Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” and wanted to read “V,” which was on the open shelves in the general fiction. The librarian got all huffy and red around the wattles and persuaded my father that it was “unsuitable” for someone my age. (I should add that I had been reading “adult” books — including “Anna Karenina,” “The Last of the Wine,” and so forth, for years. Being the only gay kid in the universe, as far as I knew, I survived high school on Mary Renault — whose books I never had any trouble checking out.)

    Our next stop was a bookstore, where I bought a copy. No questions asked.

    (In my father’s defense, he was rather prominent in our small town and had to consider the gossip potential of the library confrontation. He’d never tried to put limits on what I read.)

  • 1jetpackangel

    I was still in elementary school when I got my hands on a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (from my then-church’s library, oddly) and read it, but was unfortunately too young to understand what the fuss was about, and many of the harsher concepts sailed over my somewhat sheltered head. (But, proving your point, I jumped for the forbidden fruit.) In sixth grade, I read “Gone With The Wind” and was starting to get a little upset about this stuff. Eighth grade, it was “Black Like Me,” and I think that was the first time I’d ever felt ashamed to be white.

  • crazymonkeylady

    My daughter started reading Harry Potter when she was 8. I was glad she was reading. And I let her read whatever she wanted. In third grade she read at a sixth grade level. I made it clear that if she had any questions about her books, just ask! She read the ‘Dr. Doolittle’ series of books. It was written during a time when racial overtones were acceptable, so I taught her the history of the times they were written in. And taught her that the actions were now completely unacceptable. I believe in teaching in context. And she’s still reading today. I read Banned Books!

  • It’s not so much the growing up that bothers them. It’s the growing up to be a fully formed ,free thinking adult who is not ‘one with the body of Landru’ that really spins them out.

  • *shrugs* I enjoyed it, and it got my nose out of books for a change.

  • And when people can’t get away with banning it, they edit it instead:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/books/07huck.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • Indigo

    I’m with your dad on that one. Somehow, D&D never quite lived up to my expectations, at least not in my admitedly limited experience. I kinda like GURPS, though.

  • I wasn’t even planning to see Monty Python’s The Life of Brian until the Catholic and Evangelical fundies got their knickers in such a twist about it.

    Well, I was planning to -see- it eventually, but it wasn’t a high priority to go see it in a theater at the time. Thanks to the god-botherers, they convinced me to go.

    “Always look on the bright side of life…”

  • FuzzyRabbit

    I remember when I was a kid, “Banned in Boston” printed on the cover of a book was a sure fire way to stimulate sales.

  • Indigo

    True that. The best advertising for a movie, at least back in the day, was for the priest or minister to denounce it from the pulpit.

  • They would if they could get away with it. For now, we’re up to “openly advocating for gays to be stoned to death and women who get abortions to be hung by the neck until dead.”

    On the other hand, back in my D&D days in high school, we had to deal with abysmally ignorant parents who thought we were going to kill each other in Satanic rituals… My father, before he completely lost his marbles some years later, demanded we have a game at our house so he could see what we were doing. He watched for a while, then he called me into the kitchen.

    “So that’s it? You tell stories and roll dice and write stuff on papers?”

    “Yeah. Some groups use big paper maps and painted lead miniatures, so it’s almost like a board game, but we decided it was too much trouble. It’s based on the same rule books though.”

    “Oh. Seems kinda dumb.”

    That was the last he ever said on the subject, other than to tell us to keep down the noise because he wanted to watch a football game.

  • What’s funny is by drawing attention to certain books as ban-worthy, these god-bothering idjits have no idea that precocious teens will almost always then seek out the forbidden. Because it’s always a truism: “If someone wants to go to that much trouble to stop me from reading something, there must be something good and/or interesting in there.”

  • koolaidyarn

    Only the ones that weigh less than a duck.

  • “Witch Reconsideration Committee”

  • Indigo

    Puritans at work. Do they also burn witches?

  • It also usually backfires and encourages people who would otherwise just have ignored it. I know the fact that I couldn’t find Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in my school library made it all the more cool. Of course, I would have read it anyway but I know others who definitely would not have.

  • Demosthenes

    Banning books have always been a stupid approach to “learning”. In the 1970s, my high school banned “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” because the “N word” was used. The books, of course, weren’t racist. The school board reconsidered the decision years later (when, I presume, they bothered to read them).

  • jomicur

    It was a stock bit of dialogue in old horror movies: “There are some things man [sic] was not meant to know.” Are we surprised that the American right wing has come to resemble a horror movie?

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