There are many, many books Lucy loves that I would like to see permanently removed from circulation. Poorly written, overly didactic books that talk down to the reader, which, to my chagrin, does not seem to bother her in the least. Barbie Goes Rollerblading, for example, or any of the seemingly thousands of Berenstain Bears titles. We go to the public library and I pick out the old Corduroy, a charming story about a stuffed bear and Lisa, the little girl who adopts him. Lucy picks out the new Corduroy, an insipid tale in which Lisa seems not to exist anymore and Corduroy has a valuable lesson about friendship shoved down his throat. The temptation to “lose” these books between the children’s room and the circulation desk is great.
A few months ago, Ann Patchett had a piece in The Atlantic about her experience with attempted censorship at Clemson University. For those of you who didn’t read it, allow me to summarize: the school chose Truth and Beauty, Patchett’s story of the friendship between two young women and their paths toward adulthood, for its freshman reading program. As you might expect of a true story about coming of age, the book contains some (gasp!) drug use and (GASP!) sex. That’s not what the story is about, but it’s in there. The no doubt well-intentioned parents of some of the Clemson freshmen found out about the book (I say “found out about” rather than “read” because they were quite up front about the fact that they had not read it) and objected. Strenuously. So strenuously, in fact, that when Patchett finally came to campus to give her planned talk on the book, the University assigned her a security detail and hustled her in and out of the auditorium through the back door.
When I read this piece, I shook my head in righteous indignation. What is wrong with those people? I thought. Do they trust their children so little that they won’t allow them to read a book that might make them think? Do they plan to shelter them for their entire lives?
Yesterday, Lucy brought her first school library book home. She had chosen it herself, and we read it last night before bed. It turned out to be about a bully. Bullies are not something Lucy has ever come across, and so this required more than a little explanation. In the process, I could tell she was starting to get worried about meeting a bully, and I started to get upset that it was upsetting her. It’s true – I didn’t want to read her the book, because it talked about a bad thing she didn’t know about and I didn’t want her to worry. I wanted to protect her not just from bullies themselves, but from even the knowledge that bullies exist. No matter that probably the best way to protect her from bullies is to teach her that they exist and give her some strategies for dealing with them; the parental drive to shelter is not rational.
Now, it’s true that there are books that are not appropriate for five-year-olds. In fact, there are books that are ostensibly written for five-year-olds that are not appropriate for them. But the line between screening for developmental appropriateness and censoring is a fine one. And the slope from not checking out The Berenstain Bears Think of Those in Need to not reading the book about bullies to interfering in the college reading program is slippery. I have to ask myself, do I really think she’s not ready to read about this? Or do I not want her to be ready? Or is it maybe that I’m not ready? And then, unless it’s the first one, I have to suck it up and read.