Archive for October 5th, 2012

On Children, Media, Curating, and Censorship

It’s once again Banned Books Week, a week designated to celebrate the freedom to read. I make it a point to talk about this week every year, whether here or over on Unleaded, because I love books. Really, it’s nothing more complicated than that. I love books, I’ve always loved books, so I support and defend them. However, Banned Books Week this year arrives with me now the father of a one month old daughter, and on the heels of my wife and I having our first conversations about her future media consumption.

Books are only a part of this. I can only hope they will be a big part. I’m already collecting books appropriate across a wide range of ages, starting with Bob Shea’s Dinosaur Vs books that are excuses for daddy to make a lot of silly roaring noises, though YA classics like the copy of Wizard of Oz I grabbed at the Arlington Central Library booksale this weekend, to modern YA by authors I admire, like the first two books of Cat Valente’s Fairyland series. I plan to complete my collection of Lemony Snicket books, because it’s important to know that sometimes book series don’t end well. These are books and writers that I love dearly, and they are books and writers I hope my Little Bird will love as well.

My wife and I plan to curate her reading. We want to go into books knowing what she’ll encounter, knowing what we might want to talk about, and knowing if a book isn’t yet age appropriate for her. We hope to do this with all her media consumption. We plan to limit television and video game times, we plan to supervise her when she is around any of these glowing rectangles that fill our lives and my house. This is what my wife and I view as responsible parenting, being aware of what our child is exposed to and choosing proper media experiences.

There’s a line, however, between parents curating their child’s experiences, and parents attempting to use the government to curate other children’s experiences. This is the line that Banned Books Week shines a light on. I’m not going to pretend that all media, whether books, television, games, or movies, is appropriate for all audiences. I’m certainly not going to read my Little Bird 50 Shades of Grey when she’s six years old, just as I wouldn’t sit her down to watch The Host or let her play, or watch me play, Assassin’s Creed. Some lines are harder to draw. What’s the right point for the first Harry Potter book…or the fourth one, or the last one? What’s the right age for Star Wars? Or The Hobbit (movies or book)? There will be an ongoing series of these decisions that my wife and I will make, and have been empowered to make by the fact that the hospital handed us this squirming baby to take home one month ago, and society has now tasked us with turning her into a productive adult.

Some will be tough decisions, and some may involve a lot of discussion between my wife and myself, and potentially some sit downs with our Little Bird as she gets older. But these decisions will be made, and they will apply to her.

And only to her.

Age appropriateness is one of the common complaints when books are challenged within school libraries. And it’s the only complaint that comes up that I can understand. It is the job of a school library to properly curate its collection for the children. Just as I wouldn’t read 50 Shades to her, I also wouldn’t expect to see it in her elementary school library. This is an obvious line to draw, and I’m using 50 Shades in part as an extreme example. However, there are books that rest on the line of questionability, books that some parents may allow and others may not depending on the reading and maturity levels of their children. These are the cases where I would be more likely to side with librarians. What can I say? My mother worked in a school library for two decades, so I tend to side with school librarians.

However, age appropriateness is not the only challenge that comes up for books, if it was we wouldn’t need Banned Books Week to bring our attention to them. Of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2012, only three list age appropriateness as a reason, and never as the only reason. Books are also challenged for their religious viewpoints. For their attitudes towards human sexuality, especially positive portrayal (or even daring to mention the existence of) non-heterosexual characters. For their morality. Now we get into territory where parents are not curating what their own children are reading, but are seeking to actively control what other children have access to. In some cases, the complaints aren’t even from parents, but from individuals who aren’t stakeholders in the situation. In some cases they aren’t complaints but individuals taking directed action, secreting books from their library shelves and destroying them. In some cases we’re talking public libraries, not school libraries.

People challenge these books because these books challenge them. Which is a damned shame. Books should challenge us. They should present us with a world that is not our own, make us ask questions of ourselves and society. Oh, perhaps not all of them, escapism is a wonderful pastime. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, get rid of books just because they make us uncomfortable. I hope my daughter starts reading books that make us sit down and have a conversation. And I’ll be right there reading them along with her, so I know what questions she may ask so I know what answers to give. That’s called parenting. But if I don’t like the questions, or the answers I may have to give, I’m not going to complain and demand that no one be able to read the book.

That’s called censorship.

I guess this all boils down to…parent your children. Know what media he or she is consuming. Especially books, because they’re the hardest media to monitor as both the quietest and most portable. If you don’t agree with the message a book gives, you’re within your right to say your child can’t read it. But you’re crossing the line if you say my child can’t read it. And look…I’ll do the same for you.

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