The New York Times – Opinion – Guest Essay –
Book Banning Is About the Illusion of Parental Control
Last week, the book publisher Lisa Lucas started a conversation on Twitter about all of the potentially disturbing, sometimes naughty books that some kids of our vintage used to read without our parents paying the least bit of attention. “Flowers in the Attic,” a creepy, gothic tale of incest and child abuse by V.C. Andrews, was a popular one, and I remember it getting passed around one summer at sleep away camp when I was 11. It scared the daylights out of me.
I was a voracious reader, and some of what I read in my tweens and teens was prurient and had close to zero literary value. (For instance, “Go Ask Alice,” a cautionary tale of drug use masquerading as a teen’s diary, which I thought was a true story until I was 30.) Other books provided tools for identity formation, in ways that in retrospect are hilarious and myopic. Like many dramatic, bookish teenagers, I loved “The Bell Jar,” which I’m pretty sure was on my sophomore English summer reading list.
After that, I read biographies of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on my own, because I love mess and gossip. In college, I told at least one suitor that I wanted a passionate romance like theirs: The first time they met, at a party, Hughes ripped off Plath’s headband and earring, and Plath bit Hughes on the face. In true adolescent fashion, I glossed over the depressing ending of their story. I doubt that was the takeaway my teachers intended when “The Bell Jar” was assigned.
I mention all this because of the recent ongoing public debate, mostly among adults, about which books are “appropriate” for teenagers to read in schools. Book bans, even book burnings, are on the rise, and the latest round of discussion took off with the McMinn County, Tenn., school board’s decision to remove “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from their district’s eighth grade curriculum.
For the record, I think bans are terrible for many reasons, including because they’re frequently about political fights among adults that spill into children’s lives when it’s not really about them. As my Times colleague Margaret Renkl wrote Monday in an Opinion essay, “the vast majority of teenagers in McMinn County already carry the modern world around in their pockets — the cussing and the sex and the violence and all of it.” Many recent bans are part of the general, misguided push against so-called critical race theory. Other bans are against books depicting any kind of nonheterosexual sex or romance. The American Library Association has a list of the 10 most challenged books from 2001 to 2020 on its website, and sexual and racial content are popular recent reasons for banning.
More alarming are the threats to criminalize distribution of what politicians deem “pornographic” books. One Texas high school librarian told NBC News she was retiring earlier than planned because of these threats. “I got out because I was afraid to stand up to the attacks. I didn’t want to get caught in somebody’s snare. Who wants to be called a pornographer? Who wants to be accused of being a pedophile or reported to the police for putting a book in a kid’s hand?”
While it is distressing, none of this is new. An article published more than 40 years ago in Time magazine called “The Growing Battle of the Books” discusses a strikingly similar dynamic to the one we’re witnessing today, with books that have sexual, racial and religious content among the most banned.
The entire article is worth a read, but this paragraph stuck out to me as particularly relevant to our current struggle:
Few censors, if any, tend to see that censorship itself runs counter to certain basic American values. But why have so many people with such an outlook begun lurching forth so aggressively in recent years? They quite likely have always suffered the censorial impulse. But they have been recently emboldened by the same resurgent moralistic mood that has enspirited evangelical fundamentalists and given form to the increasingly outspoken constituency of the Moral Majority. At another level, they probably hunger for some power over something, just as everybody supposedly does these days. Thus they are moved, as American Library Association President Peggy Sullivan says, “by a desperation to feel some control over what is close to their lives.”
It’s not surprising to me that after two years of pandemic uncertainty and chaos, we’re in a moment where some parents want to exert control over something, anything for their kids, and I do have some empathy for that feeling, if not for the expression of it. Particularly because the early quarantines, when virtual schooling was happening everywhere, brought curriculum and teachers into our homes in much more intimate ways. In that moment, teenagers were at home instead of starting to grow away from their families, which is what they’re supposed to do. While parents always have some sway over their kids, this period of enforced togetherness possibly gave some parents the illusion that they still had full authority over their adolescents’ intellectual lives.
My mother, who practiced psychiatry for 40 years, used to tell me that you have until your kid is 12 to, if you will, brainwash them with your set of moral values. After that, their peers become as influential as — if not more so than — their parents. In the ’90s, Judith Rich Harris, an independent researcher, promoted the theory that parental influence matters less than we think in terms of child development.
Harris, who died in 2019, once wrote, “If teenagers wanted to be like adults they wouldn’t be shoplifting nail polish from drugstores or hanging off overpasses to spray I LOVE YOU LIƨA on the arch,” and that “If they really aspired to ‘mature status’ they would be doing boring adult things like sorting the laundry and figuring out their income taxes. Teenagers aren’t trying to be like adults: they are trying to distinguish themselves from adults!”
And thank goodness they are. In December, NPR ran a segment on book bans, and noted that in North Kansas City, Mo., a parent-led group got “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, which are both memoirs by gay writers, removed from school libraries. “The district ended up putting those books back on shelves after students protested. Sixteen-year-old Aurora Nicol spoke at a school board meeting after the books were returned,” Nomin Ujiyediin reported.
Despite parental outbursts, teens are going to continue to find ways to assert themselves publicly and privately, and to get their mitts on whatever their parents don’t want them to read, see or discuss.
I’m so glad I read so many different kinds of books as a teenager, even the supposedly bad ones. Because it was fun, because I bonded with my friends over those books, because they gave me goofy ideas I could explore in my head without acting them out in real life; and some ideas that I had to act out in real life to experience the consequences of my choices. My older daughter is currently reading a book about sinister dolls who are constantly plotting against each other and attempting to avoid something called “permanent doll state.” I have no idea if she’s learning a damn thing from it, but she sure is enjoying herself.
In The Times, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote about how books have the power to disturb — and why that can be a good thing. “Books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question,” he wrote.
In 1998, Malcolm Gladwell profiled Judith Rich Harris in The New Yorker, and this line is one I will be thinking about for days: “This is the modern-day cult of parenting. It takes as self-evident the idea that the child is oriented, overwhelmingly,” toward the parents. “But why should that be true?”
Beyond the skirmishes over books, parents across the country are still reeling from pandemic changes. Politico has a good summary of the cross-country political currents around schools and parental rage.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
My kindergartner does not like to get ready for school in the morning. So, I started setting a stopwatch to encourage him to set a “world record” each morning. He can now get dressed in four minutes!
— Adrienne Bogacz, Columbus, Ohio