I remember being in middle school and reading books for the Accelerated Reader Program. It was great because although reading was required you got to choose your own books. I loved going down to the library and browsing the shelves until I finally found one I wanted to check out. And back then, honestly, I read more adult books than I do now. These days I read YA almost exclusively but back then I didn’t even know what YA was. My favorite author was Mary Higgins Clark. I read most her books on the AR list. Other authors included Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Tolkien. I was first introduced to censorship back then.
I remember reading different novels, completely lost in the story, and then suddenly I’d come across a word that had been marked out in black Sharpie. I’d flip through the pages and see more black bars scattered here and there and sometimes even full sentences. And I always imagined our librarian just sitting down at her desk with a Sharpie, reading the whole library book by book, marking out all the inappropriate words and phrases. Sometimes I’d try to infer what the big bad word was or squint my eyes and try to see through the black ink. I wanted to know what was so horrible.
But a part of me thought it was cool too. I mean, someone obviously took issue with a few chosen words here and there. They could have removed the book from the shelves completely. They could have restricted it. But they didn’t. They just created their own black censor bars and let us kids read around them.
The truth is there is always some form of censorship, restriction, outrage, or banning when it comes to certain books and underage kids and teens. Parents always want their kids to read, but then want to control what it is they can get their hands on. But reading preference is a huge divide. You have to find your place, and at a young age it’s especially important. It might shape the entire way you view books and reading.
So here’s my question. Should books for minors have a rating system? Should they have to be regulated and rated like movies and videogames? Should they be slapped with a warning label that says “Explicit Content” like CDS have? How would that change our society?
Of course I don’t want this to happen. It breaks my heart when kids have to read Harry Potter in secret or some angry mom appeals to have a book removed from an entire school or public library. One person’s complaint shouldn’t dictate an entire library or affect other kids whose parents allow them to read what they like. In an increasingly digital age parents should be excited to have a kid who chooses books over tablets and smartphones. No, I don’t think every book is appropriate for all ages. But if it’s written and aimed at children or teens’ then it should be understood that the content within is relevant to that age group or connects to them in some way.
The beauty in most stories is just that. Their connection to readers. Books containing sex, drugs, drinking, cursing, magic, rebellion and anarchy, eating disorders, gay characters, survival, and other taboo topics aren’t how-to guides on how to be a delinquent. They aren’t meant to brainwash your child into behaving the same way or flaunt dangerous topics just for the sake of it. Reading about magic didn’t make me believe I could wield it, learning about eating disorders didn’t make me want to try it, and watching pages of violence unfold didn’t make me run out and start a riot. What those things did do was give me an escape into another world. They opened my eyes to other imaginations. They connected me with characters. This is why I read.
It’s not the magic or violence or sex or anything that draws me in. It’s the characters. It’s watching how they react to a situation, seeing their journey unfold, realizing their relationships, and rooting for them as they navigate their hardships and discover themselves. THAT is what matters. The fact that your child feels something when they read, that they cry or gasp when something happens, that they stay up past their bedtimes to find out what happens next, that they see things differently after they turn that last page, or feel a connection to a character when they think no one else understands them… These are the things that matter. These are the things books can do.
At the end of the book it isn’t how many blacked out curse words or sex scenes or descriptions of violence that make it good or bad. It isn’t the fake magic that you don’t want your children to believe in. It’s that they want to read. It’s that books mean something to them even if it’s in a way you don’t understand. That is the real magic. So why would you ever want to take that away?