Why Banned Books Are the Most Valuable Stories

When I was a sophomore in college, I had an assignment to recite lines of The Canterbury Tales for a class that was required for my English major. The only lesson that this exercise taught me was that nobody needs to read The Canterbury Tales unless they’re a masochist or a member of Monty Python.

But I learned much more important lessons from studying literature: the horrors of slavery from Toni Morrison’s Beloved; losing the right to determine your own destiny from The Handmaid’s Tale; and being a nonconformist from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

These books taught me something that memorizing lines from The Canterbury Tales didn’t. They taught me about humanity.

They taught me the consequences of responding from anger and fear.

They taught me about empathy and compassion for stories other than my own.

They taught me that people can make bad choices but that doesn’t make them bad people.

Those books taught me about what it means to be human, an experience that is devastating and glorious and so goddamn complicated.

And they are all banned books.

They were banned for content that includes sexuality, violence, profanity, and resistance to authority, all things that are part of the human experience.

They were mostly banned to protect young readers from ideas that could corrupt their young minds.

Young readers are every bit a part of the human experience as anyone else. Take away these stories and you rob them of their chance to understand their place in this world.

It’s easy to get behind this cause when you consider titles such as Beloved, The Handmaid’s Tale, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Surely, there’s a book on this list that impacted you as a young reader.

But it’s much more difficult when it’s about more recent titles such as 13 Reasons Why, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, Drama, and The Hate U Give.

These books address issues that may be difficult to explain to children because we don’t understand those issues ourselves – suicide, homosexuality, bullying, inequality, rape, and racism.

When you ban books or challenge titles – when you take away a person’s freedom to read – then you’re setting an example to young minds that this is how we handle challenging ideas.

We censor them. We remove them from libraries. We just don’t talk about them.

Banned Books Week starts on Monday, September 24th, and it’s not just about censorship. It’s about hearing stories that challenge your ideas and teach you how to be human. And that is something we need more than ever right now.

We are a fiercely divided country at this moment in history. The way we communicate with each other is not working, and each one of us is individually responsible for this mess we made.

We have to change the way we’re having the conversation. We have to be open to hearing stories that are different from our own.

Banned Books Week is a time for reflection and asking, “What are the stories that challenge me?”

Do you want to be part of the problem?

Do you want to be the person who takes away another person’s right to access information, because you feel intimidated by it?

Or to be the person who takes away a child’s need to understand the world around them?

Or to take away a person’s natural born right for their story to be heard?

Or do you want to make this better?

Do you want to create a world for children where they have all the knowledge they need to know their place in this world?

Do you want to live in a world where all stories are heard?

That’s what’s at stake here. If we don’t change the conversation, then this is the world that the next generation stands to inherit.

It will be so much worse than two sides bickering ad nauseam and loathsome presidents. It will be a country that is too weak to stand on its own.

This is the world our kids stand to inherit. When they don’t learn how to challenge their ideas and hear stories other than their own, then we have let them down because they can’t keep up with a world that is constantly changing.

We are stronger when we have an open exchange of ideas. We are stronger when we challenge our ideas and hear voices other than our own. We are stronger when all voices have a place at the table.

You can’t stop books from being challenged, but you can read books that challenge you.

Hear a story other than your own and you will learn that there is more to the story.

Learn about humanity, and you will learn what it means to be human.

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