The first time I heard about a book being banned was probably in 1980. I was 13 and awkwardly making my way through junior high. The book was "Forever" by Judy Blume and, needless to say, it was one of the most popular books that year. Classmates shared copies and the contraband nature of it made the experience all the more exciting.
When I finally got my hands on it, I remember reading and liking it. It was different from other books I read — more like the lives of my friends and people we knew. I was bothered by the notion that someone didn't want us to read it, because as far as I know, the book didn't cause me to turn to a life of depravity and debauchery.
I never talked to my parents about the book. We had more of a “don't ask, don't tell” approach to the books I read. My very conservative parents were just thrilled to see me reading and believed that only good things could come from reading books of all kinds. I went on to read many, many books that were forbidden by one group or another, and I'm happy to report that I turned out OK.
Books were important to me as a teen growing up in the South. I never really felt like I fit in with my family and neighbors. I had many friends, but through reading, I found people like me and also people so unlike me that it gave me a chance to be someone else.
I read books that made me feel like it was OK to be different, and books where the kid who was an outsider became everyone's hero. Of course, I now know that all teens feel like they are unusual. Those are tough years — a time to figure out who we are and what makes us unique while simultaneously trying to blend in with everyone else.
As an adult, I find it almost unbelievable that books are still banned by schools and libraries around the United States. “Beloved,” “Captain Underpants,” “Invisible Man,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Hunger Games.” What do these books have in common? Each has been banned from a school or library during the past year. The reasons vary, but all relate to some version of believing that the words on the pages of these books are so powerful that they can change an individual's character and moral compass for the worse.
Books for teens have been frequent targets of this criticism. Local author Rainbow Rowell recently joined the list of banned authors when a parents' group in Minneapolis successfully challenged her young adult novel “Eleanor & Park” and had it removed from school reading lists and library shelves. Why? Because this book written for teens contains cursing and content deemed by the group as “sexually explicit.”
It's natural to ask if these elements are necessary to the book. The short answer is yes. Teens are experts at spotting anything that is false, insincere or patronizing. Books that speak to them must be authentic, and to be real, teen literature must reflect the world around them. Reading about relatable characters in books helps them to understand their experiences and demonstrates the consequences of choices and behaviors, good and bad. Let's face it, sometimes teenagers do encounter cursing and sex.
Libraries play an important role in the banned books discussion. To me, keeping books on the shelves that some may want removed is one of the most important things a library can do. While the library supports a parent's right to make decisions about their own child's reading, it should not permit someone else to tell your child what she or he can or cannot read.
I can't help but reflect upon these things as the American Library Association's Teen Read Week (Oct. 13-19) approaches. Held annually during the third week of October, it's a time to celebrate teen books representing a wide variety of topics and interests.
While teens may always struggle to find balance between fitting in and being unique, it's encouraging to know that the right books (for them) can offer answers, hope, an escape, or serve as a comforting friend on their journey. Not everyone will agree on what teens should (or shouldn't) read, but I think we can all agree to celebrate the fact that they are, indeed, reading.
Gary Wasdin is the executive director of the Omaha Public Library.