Any attempt to ban a book is, at its heart, a deliberate act of disempowerment. It is both incorrect and disingenuous to think that censors are merely attacking the words on the page. They are not only attacking ideas; they are attacking the people who have those ideas. They are not only attacking identities; they are attacking the people who have those identities. They are not only attacking words; they are attacking the people who choose to use those words. Whether it comes from fear of the unknown (often the case) or an insidious desire to control other people, especially younger people, censors believe that by restricting other people’s access to stories and truths, they can somehow keep their imaginary versions of the world intact. The good news is: This doesn’t work. Especially not now.
When my first book, Boy Meets Boy, came out, I certainly got to see censorship firsthand—and got to see how essentially stupid and futile it is. The logic seemed to be: If we don’t allow books about gay teens in our library, then there won’t be any gay kids in our school. As if there was any way to control who you were born to be. As if a work of fiction could create an identity rather than merely mirror one that was already there. It’s like saying that if we pull all the books about the moon from the library, then the moon will no longer exist.
Guess what. Not true.
Also not true: That censors often win. The truth? The mass majority of the time, freedom of expression wins. Books remain on the shelves. People talk about them. Students learn a little bit more about themselves, or their world—or both. People attack books because they think books can’t defend themselves. But it turns out that books have very good allies in readers. Because we know their worth, and we know that by defending books, we are really defending all of the people that the censors are trying to disempower. What are censors scared of? They’re scared of empathy, and the equality that empathy brings. But empathy is stronger than any book challenge. It’s just that sometimes we have to stand up and support it, so it isn’t taken away.
A Word on the First Amendment from Chris Grabenstein
I’ve always thought that the First Amendment was the most important of the rights spelled out in the Bill of Rights amended to the United States Constitution in 1791.
That’s why James Madison, the guy who wrote those ten amendments, put it first.
The Bill of Rights is, basically, a list of limits on government power that help protect our individual freedoms.
My favorite freedom?
The freedom of speech!
Madison and the other Founders didn’t want their brand-new government to stop people from speaking (or writing) what they thought. Thanks to the First Amendment, the government can’t throw you in jail (or worse!) for saying what you think—even if what you think (for instance, “The Emperor has no clothes!”) is extremely unpopular with the people in power.
However, the First Amendment doesn’t protect you from everybody—just the government. For instance, if you shout, “The New York Yankees are the best team in baseball” in a crowded stadium, people might disagree with you. Especially if that stadium is in Boston.
Another reason I love the First Amendment is that it turned all Americans into medieval court jesters! Did you know that back in the Middle Ages, if you were an official fool wearing motley (an outfit made of multicolored fabric) and a jester’s hat with jingle bells on its points, you were given privileges not given to many other people in the king’s or queen’s court?
The joker was just about the only card in the deck who could freely speak his mind without having his head lopped off. A fool could use humor to mock, jibe, and jest about the noble lords and ladies of the court. Jesters could even make fun of the king and queen. They had freedom of speech.
Fortunately, thanks to the First Amendment, Americans don’t need to put on a clown suit and a jingle-bell hat to poke fun at people in authority.
When I first moved to New York City, way back in 1979, I spent five years working with a group called the First Amendment Improvisation and Comedy Company. Nightly, we exercised our First Amendment right of freedom of speech to poke fun at politicians and current events and goofy trends and just about anything that needed fun poked at it.
I remember back in the 1980s, the president, Ronald Reagan, declared that ketchup was a vegetable. Boy, did we have fun making fun of that. And none of us ended up in jail for doing it. Our zany political opinions were protected by the First Amendment.
Now that I am an author, I always feel a small surge of pride when I read that tiny mouse type printed inside the front all of my Random House books: “Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.”
I hope you will always do the same: support and celebrate the First Amendment! Especially during banned books week.
Q: We know that The Golden Compass has faced controversy after controversy in terms of censorship and book banning since it was published in 1995, especially from the religious right. Do you recall the first time it was banned, and what ran through your mind at the time? Were you surprised? Do you think it has affected your readership?
A: I think the first time the book was actually banned, in the sense of being withdrawn from school libraries, must have been sometime in the late ’90s, when it became clear what the religious tendency of the whole work was going to be. But what do we mean by “banned,” really? I don’t think any bookstores were forbidden by law to sell it, were they? A ban could only be enforced at school-library level. And surely the only effect of that would be to make the book an object of greater curiosity to those who were forbidden to read it—and that’s why I’ve never understood the psychology of banning anything: it must make the thing you want to ban even more popular, give it much more publicity, and so on. I wasn’t entirely surprised, because people have been trying to ban things through the whole of human history, with a completely uniform lack of success. If anything, my readership must have increased because of that sort of thing.
Q: You have said on occasion that the people who decry your work and wish it banned are part of the very problem you wrote about in the series. Can you expand on that?
A: Well, I mean, of course, the cast of mind that seeks to control what other people can read, or think, or say, is a dangerous one, and ought to be resisted vigorously.
Q: Censorship generally grows out of fear. In your opinion, what do you think people fear about your work in particular or about the books that are so often banned?
A: It’s hard to say, because I simply don’t understand or share the psychology of those who want to ban books. I suppose what they fear is that the control they think they have over other people’s minds is less complete or less firm than they think it is. It’s possibly less about the content of the books they’re seeking to ban than about the fact that they’re in a position of control, and they like that, and want it to continue as long as possible.
Q: Will you share some of your thoughts on censorship and the importance of freedom of speech?
A: My thoughts on this subject are by no means original. I share the belief of those who framed the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These are noble words. A people cannot be truly free if their speech and writing are subject to the censorship of any body, whether political or religious (or, increasingly these days, commercial). Freedom of expression is truly fundamental.
Author of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, Blubber, and
many other teen classics
When I began to write, I didn’t know if anyone would
publish my books, but I wasn’t afraid to write them. I was lucky.
I found an editor and publisher who were willing to take a chance.
They encouraged me. I was never told what I couldn’t write.
I felt only that I had to write the most honest books I could. It
never occurred to me, at the time, that what I was writing was controversial.
Much of it grew out of my own feelings and concerns when I was young.
There were few challenges to my books then, although I remember the night
a woman phoned, asking if I had written Are You There, God? It’s
Me, Margaret. When I replied that I had, she called me a Communist
and slammed down the phone. I never did figure out if she equated Communism
with menstruation or religion, the two major concerns in 12-year-old Margaret’s
But in 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, seemingly overnight,
organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children
could read, but what all children could read. Challenges to books quadrupled
within months, and we’ll never know how many teachers, school librarians,
and principals quietly removed books to avoid trouble.
I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious,
some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel
in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised
as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t
read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t
know about it, it won’t happen.
Today, it’s not only language and sexuality (the usual reasons
given for banning my books) that will land a book on the censors’
hit list. It’s Satanism, New Age-ism and a hundred other “isms,”
some of which would make you laugh if the implications weren’t so
serious. Books that make kids laugh often come under suspicion; so do
books that encourage kids to think, or question authority; books that
don’t hit the reader over the head with moral lessons are considered
Censors don’t want children exposed to ideas different from their
own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in
the school library would be close to empty. I wish the censors could read
the letters kids write.
I don’t know where I stand in the world. I don’t know who
I am. That’s why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13
But it’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is
the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read.
And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be
the real losers.
The critically acclaimed author of The Chocolate War.
SOME THOUGHTS ON CENSORSHIP
I sympathize with the
parents who want to have control over their own children. What their children
should do, see, read. My wife and I exercised those kinds of controls.
If [parents] object to their children reading The Chocolate War,
I don’t protest. But when they forbid other children from reading
it, then I strongly object. This, in fact, is the censorship problem in
its most basic concept. Telling other people what they can do, see, or
read. Invading rights of individuals in a free country.
I try to write
realistic stories about believable people, reflecting the world as
it is, not as we wish it to be. I think there is room in the great
halls of reading for this kind of book. The hundreds of letters I
receive each year from both teachers and young people are what sustain
me at moments when censorship threatens my work. I owe a great debt
to the many teachers, librarians, and parents who support my work.
The blessing is that in doing so they also strike blows for freedom.
Freedom is what our nation stands for and what makes our country special.
The irony of book-banning
attempts is that the publicity often causes people to read the books for
the wrong reasons. If a book is controversial, perhaps the best place
for it is the classroom where, under the guidance of a teacher, the book
can be discussed and evaluated, where each student will be free to proclaim
how he or she feels about the book and, in fact, can even refuse to read
the book. The point is that free choice must be involved.
There are many victims
of the censorship problem. Often, the children themselves suffer. There
was a case in Massachusetts where the parents of a girl strongly objected
to The Chocolate War and insisted that their daughter go to the
school library when the book was being discussed in the classroom. A classmate
of hers wrote to me of her dilemma. In his P.S., he added that she had
read The Chocolate War a year earlier on her own. You see how
impossible it is to protect young people from the world even when it is
done by parents with the best of intentions? The world intrudes, whether
through classmates or books and movies and television.
The esteemed author of Anastasia Krupnik, The Giver, Gathering Blue, and
The Messenger, published in 2004
In my early years as a writer for young people, I occasionally received
letters from people who wondered why I had used a “bad word”
in a book. I always wrote back, explaining that an author tries to reflect
reality, and so book characters have to speak the way real people would
speak; it didn’t mean, I always explained, that the reader should
speak that way, or that the author does.
When I wrote The Giver, it contained no so-called “bad
words.” It was set, after all, in a mythical, futuristic, and Utopian
society. Not only was there no poverty, divorce, racism, sexism, pollution,
or violence in the world of The Giver; there was also careful
attention paid to language: to its fluency, precision, and power.
The reaction to the book was startling. It was startling in the number
of letters and responses I received almost immediately, but it was even
more startling in the degree of differences in the responses.
A Trappist monk wrote
from his monastery that he and his brothers were reading the book as
a Christian metaphor and finding it profoundly significant as a message
At about the same time,
a parent in California demanded that it be taken off the library shelves
of her child’s school because of its immorality.
A private school in
Michigan made it required reading not only for all the upper-school
students, but for their parents.
At the same time, a
teacher wrote to me that the Newbery committee should be chastised for
their awarding the 1994 medal to a sensationalistic piece of trash.
The children of Belgium
and France chose the book, in translation, as their favorite of the
A parent wrote to me
that I should be ashamed for exposing children to “messy data.”
What’s wrong with this picture? I found myself thinking.
I went back and re-read the book myself. I tried to figure out whether
these disparate people were, in fact, all responding to the same thing:
whether there was actually a theme in the book that people found either
uplifting or terrifying, or maybe both. And I discovered that it was the
concept of choice. The Giver is about a world where those decisions
are made for them. It seems very safe and comfortable, and I bet a lot
of parents—later to object and censor—liked the book until
they were two-thirds of the way through it.
Then it got scary. It got scary—and they decided to take it away
from their own kids—because it turned out that it wasn’t safe
and comfy to live in a world where adhering to rigid rules is the norm.
It turned out, in the book, that such a world is very, very dangerous,
and that people have to learn to make their own choices.
I sympathize with the fear that makes some parents not want that to be
true. But I believe without a single shadow of a doubt that it is necessary
for young people to learn to make choices. Learning to make right choices
is the only way they will survive in an increasingly frightening world.
Pretending that there are no choices to be made—reading only books,
for example, which are cheery and safe and nice—is a prescription
for disaster for the young.
Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of The Giver:
the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also
the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And
that is the most dangerous world of all.