Why Your Child Should Be Reading Banned Books

By Paul Baly

This week, our country celebrates National Banned Books Week, and librarians, English teachers, and bibliophiles everywhere are celebrating the axiomatic notion that books contain ideas and ideas rarely exist without controversy.  In fact, one might assert that the best books contain the most profound ideas, and the most profound ideas frequently reflect the most painful, ruthless, and confounding aspects of humanity.  

Reading and grappling with complex and controversial ideas is with without question among the best ways to grow one’s intellect and character.  Since middle school is a time a tremendous intellectual and character development, students must engage with literature that challenges their imaginations, opens up windows to new ideas, and sheds light on both the uplifting as well as the less desirable and even sinister aspects of humanity. Literature presents us with complex, flawed characters who face unimaginable choices that often are a result of their own prior actions.  It shows us that humans are capable of tremendous good, but that good often comes out most nobly when faced with unthinkable hatred, malice, and suffering.  

Books have been banned ostensibly to shut down ideas that oppose power structures, to prevent exposure to controversial ideas, and to prevent young minds from experiencing content that is not developmentally appropriate.  The message we send young people when we ban books--or any content for that matter--is, “we cannot trust you to comprehend the information in this book in a mature manner, so we have to prevent you from reading it.”  

The limiting effect of this message stunts growth and leads to a general distrust between children and adults.  Since it is the sole aim of education to raise children who will envision and create a better world, the banning of books inhibits progress for humanity.  The first book banned in America was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe because of its pro-abolitionist stance. Nonetheless, it caused such heated debates about slavery and exposed so many to the horrors of the practice that some historians argue that it was instrumental in causing the Civil War.  

Former Phillips Andover Academy head and famed educational reformer, Ted Sizer, said that a goal is to have students develop into “respectful skeptics” who learn to understand their world, to criticize aspects of it, and to engage in meaningful dialogue about it. Literature is so often the catalyst for this understanding, criticism, and dialogue.  A parent recently said to me, “Literature is a window into the human soul.”  Our souls are deep, complex, wonderful, mysterious, and sometimes scary.  The literature that we read--and that our children read--should reflect it.