Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Thoughts on Censorship from a Sheltered Kid: Banned Books Week

In case you were unaware we are in the middle of Banned Books Week.

We live in a culture that is so full of ire that there is a week where we pay tribute to expensive pieces of time-sucking entertainment that people hate so much that they don't want anyone else - specifically children - to experience it.

I was loathe to write this post because I don't feel like I'm imparting any new or useful information to you, dear reader. I know that if you're reading this then I'm most likely preaching to the choir, or at the very least to the converted.

Alas, I saw THIS today. THIS yesterday. And Many More things in days and weeks prior.

So instead of being a silent, disapproving observer I'm telling you what censorship and everything it entails means to me.

I was a sheltered kid.

My mom was a Momma Bear. I didn't go play in the front yard unsupervised. I didn't walk down the street to play with the neighbor kids. I didn't stay home alone until I was twelve - and even then it was for only two or three hours. I didn't cross the street. I didn't...well, you get the idea.

Indoors. No after school friends. Adult within speaking distance if not within reach at all times.

Mom worked nights, and remember she was a Momma Bear so even my grandparents (who watched me in the evenings/mom's working weekends) abided my Mom's rules Or Else. Everyone in my family obeyed Mom's rules for me. Because...Mom.

Naturally, television and books became my best friends during my formative years.

Strangely enough - considering my career of choice and favorite pastime - no one in my family is a reader. My Nanna (grandmother) reads only on occasion; so maybe one to two books per year. Weird, right?

I can thank R.L. Stine for my nearly religious fervor when it came to reading. At seven years old (second grade) I began devouring GOOSEBUMPS books.

Gore. Dead people trying to kill kids. Monsters chasing kids. Executioners stalking kids with an axe. Kids becoming monsters. Cameras that predict how you die when they take your picture. Ghosts looking for revenge.

Those were all Goosebump books, and by the time I was 9 I had read them all.

Later I started reading the Animorphs books, and the original 14 L. Frank Baum Oz books. But those are easy...those (to my knowledge) are unobjectionable.

When I was 11 I was at the local Books-A-Million and saw THE STAND by Stephen King.

It's a beast of a book. A little over 1100 pages. It was the beginning of the summer, and I was with Mamaw (my great grandmother) and the paperback was $7.99 - fifteen minutes later I walked out with what I didn't know would be one of the greatest books I ever read.

Let's backtrack.

My mother was very young when she had me. I watched all the typical cartoons a kid watched in the late 80's early 90's, and I had a broad selection of Disney films to watch to be sure. But my earliest years while my mom put herself through nursing school we were nearly inseparable. Which meant that oftentimes I watched what she watched because my mother was an adult, and she loved me...and I was almost always within arms reach.

I do remember walking out of my room playing with my toys and Mom leaping in front of the television to block what I now know to be "The Color Purple" from my view.

But I also remember sitting on her lap in our tiny apartment watching what I now know to be "Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors".

My mom shielded me from racism, but not from gore.

While watching "NIghtmare On Elm Street 3" on my mother's lap anytime something spectacularly disgusting was about to happen she would nudge me with her knee and I would turn my head and look at the unicorn picture hanging on the wall next to our front door. It was a tiny 5x7 of a white unicorn up on its hind legs against a dark blue starry background. I would hear screaming then she would nudge me again, and I continued playing with my toys and watching the movie.

I never suffered from nightmares - at all. And to this day I LOVE a good scary movie.

Now I was not allowed to watch "Child's Play" (you may know it as "those Chucky movies") during those early years. I had a My Buddy doll who slept with me...Mom knew where to draw the line. Though what she doesn't know (until she reads this post) is that when we went over to her friend's house to watch the first Child's Play I saw the opening sequence from the hallway. (I have a hint of Sneaky in me.)

I saw John Carpenter's "Halloween" on Halloween night when I was 9. It was the first scary movie that actually scared me. Occasionally I still have a bad dream about being stalked by Michael Myers, but they occur as frequently now as they did then; which is to say once every couple of years.

I was the fourth grader raving about the awesomeness of "Scream" to my friends at school. I had the entire movie memorized by the fifth grade.

Basically I saw every good (and bad) horror movie before I hit junior high.

I remember my mother taking care before letting me watch "Amistad", though.

I didn't see "The Color Purple" until I was 21.

My mother was Excellent at conveying the difference between fantasy and reality. Freddy Krueger, Jason, Michael Myers, Chucky - those classic, bloodthirsty movie monsters were Not Real. Mom said so. They couldn't get me because they weren't real, and Mom said so. I was scared of the dark, of course, but not from the monsters in my closet.

Once I was in bed (with all the lights on - as usual) and on my comforter not eight inches from my face was a cricket.

I let out the shrillest scream.

While I was mid-scream Mom appeared - she didn't "run in", "burst into", or "erupt" she fucking Appeared - in my room wielding a metal baseball bat with a crazy look in her eye.

Then she was furious with me for screaming about a cricket.

But I never worried about a monster in my closet, and Mom was more than a match for anything under the bed.

But racism, hateful violence...those things were real. Those were the things she didn't let me see. I couldn't watch the cartoon G.I. Joe, but I could watch scary movies.

As viscerally as people react to movies like "Insidious" or "The Strangers" that's how I react to "The Help". The courtroom in "Amistad" is a much more harrowing scene for me than Michael Myers stalkng Jamie Lee Curtis through a dark house.

When I read about Ferguson, Missouri I'm more scared of being pulled over by my local police officers than any James Wan film.

We are taught what to fear, and what to hate.

Which brings me to Banned Books Week.

(I hope you enjoyed that tangent.)

We all know Harry Potter turns kids into witches. I mean, duh. It's the most famous and also one of the most challenged so let's get this out of the way...

Church-people hate Harry Potter. I won't call them Christians because I call myself one, and...just No. We'll call them Church-people.

Church-people believe that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft. Plain and simple. Had they a modicum of knowledge of a pagan belief system they would see that it does not. Alas, I don't think anyone who has ever sought to ban Harry Potter has ever read the book. Thus, true to form Church-people perpetuate the stereotype of being biased, unaware, and unreasonable.

Hunger Games. Challenged for its violence. Kids killing kids for sport. Nevermind that these people aren't challenging MMA, Professional Wrestling, or most blockbuster films.

I've noticed Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series challenged because it: "Offends religious sensibilities" - because once an eleven year old - a READING (most likely somewhat intelligent and self-possessed) eleven year old - gets her/his hands on a Percy Jackson book they're going to start....praying to Zeus?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - written for teenagers and it has sex/masturbating in it. Your teen already knows about sex. You had sex to have your teen. If you have a teenager who does not know about sex or masturbating then your teen is lying to you, or you can expect to be faced with some very interesting/expensive challenges in the next couple of years.

There are many comprehensive lists of books that are banned for one reason or another. Some I guarantee you won't even understand what they could possibly think is wrong...but, hey, 'Merica.

I was a sheltered physically, but my reading was never censored.

I finished THE STAND, IT, THE SHINING, and was about to start reading THE TOMMYKNOCKERS when I saw the film "Interview With the Vampire". I liked the movie so much as soon as I knew it was a book I started reading it. I was 12.

The homoerotic tone of the novel is clear and almost ever-present. As a kid just coming to understand his sexuality, and being the only homosexual in my social sphere, I was very uncomfortable. These characters were saying/doing/feeling things that I was struggling to hide at that time in my life. I was a zealous Church-Person Christian, and I couldn't reconcile my feelings within myself, and within those pages were characters who had sexual feelings similar to mine, and I couldn't get behind them (Ha! Crass pun).
I put the book down.

Animorphs ended, and I picked up K.A. Applegates next series, EVERWORLD. Again, I was 12, or almost thirteen. The first book came with a CD that had one song that sort of represented each of the five main characters. It was all punk/alternative rock to my recollection. I don't remember the songs exactly, but I do remember thinking that if Mom heard me listening to this music she would wonder WTF was going on.

The kids in Everworld cussed, drank, and had sex. NOTHING like my beloved Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Marco and Tobias from Animorphs.

Their behavior made young, Britney/N'Sync/Top 40 hits me uncomfortable.

I stopped reading them.

I expected that behavior when I picked up a Stephen King book. Not when I picked a book out of the colorful, brightly lit, kid's section of a bookstore.

An ugly fact of our world is that not every kid loves to read. I only like to read books that I enjoy! (That is my sideways confession of not reading more than ten pages of GREAT EXPECTATIONS my freshman year of High School. Just. Awful.)

My point is that kids who do read for pleasure are masters at governing themselves. They are already aware of Fiction and Non-Fiction. They know their own limits and what they expect of the characters and stories in the books they choose.

Two years after I put down INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE I picked up QUEEN OF THE DAMNED on Valentine's Day (the movie was coming out, and I thought - 'eh, let's give it a chance'). QUEEN OF THE DAMNED is the best of the Vampire Chronicles (and one of the worst films ever made). It got me to read the rest of that series of books. By then I was almost two years older I was more at peace with myself and had come to certain decisions as to how to handle my life and situation. Thus, reading Anne Rice's immortal man-on-man pseudo-sexual but very romantic love stories between creatures of the night didn't bother me in the slightest.

I loved the world of Everworld. Mythology has been my jam since I was ten. I went back a year later (because then there were kids at my school rumored to have sexual relationships and sneaking drinks from their parent's liquor cabinets) thus the lives of the teenagers in the Everworld books wasn't so deviant from the people I went to school with every day. (Also yes, sex and alcohol was common knowledge - commonplace for some - when I was 13).

I read those things that bothered me when I knew I was old enough to accept and handle them. I was subconsciously aware of my own immaturity, and it wasn't the book or author's fault.

Censoring books doesn't protect your children. Censorship doesn't protect your children. Being alongside them, Fighting for them, Teaching them - Those things protect your children. You raising your kids well protects your children.

If you judge something your child is reading (and they like it) you're judging them. You're saying that part of them, this thing they love, is dirty and unsatisfactory - they need to change.

You could learn why they love it (or hate it). You'll learn things about them that way - trust me, no matter how much you think you know your child - you don't. (How well did your parents know you?)

A reading child is something to be lauded and guided. When you fear the unknown, something different, and you take no care to understand it you pass that willful ignorance on to your child. This world has enough hatred and fear.

If you really feel such passionate hatred for a book (a BOOK of all things!) instead of trying to hide what cannot be hidden, know it, read it, and point out to your child the why and the wherefore you believe what you believe and why they should to.

God help me if that creates another bigot, but at least it'll be a critically thinking one. At least it'll be a somewhat intelligent mind that eventually may open to the world around them.

Perhaps I'm too optimistic.

My theory is that if a proponent of censorship truly tried to understand what book they're so fervently arguing against then we wouldn't have a Banned Books Week. Everyone would shut the hell up and at least say, "hey, we'll agree to disagree".

But limiting a child's freedom - the freedom to read whatever they wish - you're teaching them that it's okay to limit the freedom of others. And worse, you're teaching them that even the most unsound, unreasonable arguments can be legitimized under the umbrella of "for your protection".

As we can see on the news every single day the "for your protection" argument has far-reaching and damning consequences.

So read a Banned Book, especially if you're trying to ban one. One of the best ways to win an argument is to advocate your opponent's point of view first. So do that - if you have a problem with a book read it. Understand why people have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to it, and formulate your opposing position accordingly.....but I sincerely believe that if people did that I wouldn't be up here teetering on a soapbox.

Shut up and read a book.

Until we meet again...

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