Content warning: Mentions of sexual violence.
October 1 through 7 is Banned Books Week, an annual event highlighting the importance of access to literature, including material with controversial topics. This week brings awareness to some of the books that have been banned in the past and the harm that comes from banning pieces of literature from the public.
As an English major and someone who spent a lot of time reading, books took me on many journeys as a child. I remember reading The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and hearing the heartbreaking story of Susie Salmon, a teenager a few years younger than I was at the time who was raped and killed. I remember telling myself I’d be more careful about talking to strangers in the future. That book was challenged because it contained material that was “too scary” and “too adult” for children.
Let’s face it: some of these books do contain scary or uncomfortable material, but that does not mean they should be kept away from the public. The truth is life is full of scary and uncomfortable circumstances. People go through unpleasant, tragic, and downright terrifying experiences every day, and these characters, stories, and situations mirror the experiences that people have.
In the banned book Speak by Laura Halse Anderson, we hear the story of a 13-year-old girl named Melinda as she deals with mental trauma after she is raped by a fellow student. Melinda’s story focuses on mental health, finding the strength to address things that have happened to you, and finding your own voice.
Whether or not you have been the victim of sexual assault, there are still elements of Melinda’s story you can relate to. She talks about everyday things, like bullying, not fitting in, staying true to herself, and ultimately, finding her place in life.
But to the student who has been sexually assaulted and has been too afraid to tell anyone, hearing Melinda’s story might make them feel less alone, give them the courage to speak up, and provide comfort.
In The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, another commonly banned book, US immigrant Amir recalls his childhood as a privileged child in Afghanistan. Amir later moves to the US, where he and his father are forced out of their wealthy lifestyle and start to sell items at a flea market to make a living in America.
Not only does Amir’s story offer a unique perspective on immigrating to the United States, but it also deals with universal experiences, like jealousy, insecurity, and, ultimately, dealing with the past to move on to the future.
To someone who moved to the United States from a different country, hearing the story of someone having to change their life and acclimate to the US might be helpful or help provide someone who has never been through the experience a little taste into what people who come to this country go through.
In The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, we hear the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove, a midwestern Black girl who grew up in the Great Depression. Pecola is placed in foster care due to abuse in her family and faces ever-increasing traumatic moments. Equating beauty with whiteness after being fascinated with a light-skinned Black girl, Pecola revered the girl and prayed for blue eyes.
This novel not only deals with self-hate and racism but also familial sexual and physical abuse, mental health issues, race, and friendship.
As a young Black girl reading this story in an all-white town, I related to it, and it made me feel understood and less alone.
When you ban a book, you are silencing a character, a story, or a unique perspective that someone can relate to. This Banned Books Week, consider reliving some of the stories you learned from.
The true essence of Banned Books Week should not be simply highlighting the books that have been banned in the past or present. This week should be highlighting the stories of the characters being censored and omitted from culture, and be sharing a unique perspective that an actual person could relate to or learn from.
Not only that, when you ban books, you rob people of their journeys with literature. Anyone who has ever held a book in their hand, smelled its pages and spent time reading a good book knows that you develop a personal relationship with the material. While the book contains only words, we mix our experiences with what we are reading, which becomes a personal experience unique to each reader.
When you ban a book, you are not only dictating what other people can and can’t read, you are taking away one of the most powerful vehicles people use to relate to the world.