I owe my education to the authors of banned books.
I have read banned books—along with books that were deemed age inappropriate—from elementary school on. It’s important for you to know — and the book censors to understand — that I read Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lolita, The Bluest Eye not in spite of their controversial status, but because of it.
It turns out that those works — and countless others — became hugely popular mostly because they are great, but also because some committee of bluenoses tried to hide them from young readers and the schools that educate them.
Those Puritans, in the name of parental rights, are stripping school library shelves and censoring textbooks. School boards and teachers are under attack. Some politicians are exploiting fear and turning it into paranoia and intolerance. Their big lie is that progressive teachers are grooming students to grow into pernicious socialists and homosexuals.
Because of a complaint, a book called gender-queer was pulled by administrators from at least two public high schools in Pinellas County, including the one in my neighborhood.
As soon as I read about the ban, I hustled to Tombolo Books to buy a copy. I have since purchased three more. A memoir written and illustrated in the style of a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe, it contains some tough stuff. A young person grows up thinking she was born with the wrong body and transitions over time to a gender-neutral state.
It’s a compelling, funny, tragic, at times explicit story with imagery of sexual fantasies, and the incredible trauma of a first visit to a gynecologist’s office. There are a hundred reasons why Puritans would want to yank this book off the shelf. But I shared a copy with the mom who lives next door, who shared it with her 17-year-old daughter, Charley Daly.
I’ve known Charley since the Valentine’s Day on which she was born. She is my go-to source when it comes to connecting with the lives of young readers and writers. She and her mom de ella think that gender-queer could be a valuable resource for students from middle school on, not just the ones who might be struggling with their identities.
Charley notes that very young students already gain access to adult material as soon as they get their cell phones. “When something is important,” says Charley, “I want to learn about it through my reading books rather than descend into the rabbit hole of the internet.”
Some of you will now want to read gender-queer, and that’s my point. The more the censors want to ban a book, the more interesting, the more desirable it becomes. Students find ways to get their hands on it. It is shared and revered, forbidden fruit.
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The media scholar Neil Postman once asked: What makes a young person want to read? The answer is not to get good grades, or please parents, or become a patriotic citizen. I wanted to read for one reason: to learn the secrets about adult life that were being hidden from me. Those mostly involved sex and violence, but also topics such as race and religion.
As a seventh grader I bought a book called Nuremberg Diary, about the Nazi war-crime trials. I did not know the word Holocaust. I did not know about the torture of the concentration camps. What I learned terrified me. But in retrospect, I was gratified that my parents and my teachers never thought to wrestle the book out of my hands.
My Catholic school teacher, a Franciscan brother named Richard McCann, would let us leave the school grounds and walk up the street to browse through the local public library. He gave us a list of recommended books, but encouraged us to find our own. I was attracted to the Norman Mailer novel of WWII, The Naked and the Dead. It was probably because the word “naked” was in the title. It is now widely considered one of the great novels of the 20th century.
I am the author or editor of 20 books. And not one of them has been banned. I will not tolerate being overlooked.
Why is no one shocked by my book The Glamor of Grammar? Take chapter 43 on the creative ways to use taboo language. There is a word — it begins with the letter F — that my mom could use as five different parts of speech. I quote a bunch of great authors who use the word in literature. Surely, parents, you do not want this text in the hands of your impressionable teenagers. Someone, please, ban my book. I need the sales.
I conclude with the terrible story of a young man of high school age who shot and killed Black people at a food market in Buffalo, New York. He could read and write. I have read the vilest racist and antisemitic propaganda on social media. And he wrote a screed full of the hate that would lead him to mass murder. Among his other problems, I would argue, is that he was a bad reader, which is to say he lacked the ability to distinguish humane truth from the conspiracy theories that poisoned his mind.
The only way to become an intelligent critical reader is through early exposure with sophisticated literature that some folks don’t want you to read. It is even better when your exposure to those works comes to you with the guidance of a teacher or librarian who can help you understand. Those educators are the true champions of literacy and democracy. Get off their backs. And ban my books — please!
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at [email protected].