Blacklisted: Thoughts On Banning Books

Margot McGovern talks banned books and remembers the time a teacher confiscated one of her favourite reads. 

Last week was Banned Books Week in America. Until last Monday, I had no idea that was a thing. And to be honest, when I first heard about it, I thought it was some kind of marketing gimmick put out by one of the big publishers to encourage people to buy backlist titles. Call me cynical, but I have a Penguin Banned Books box set. It really didn’t seem that far fetched.

However, what I learned from looking around the Banned Books Week website is that not only is the movement legit, more than 11,300 books have been challenged in America since Banned Books Week started in 1982, and at least 311 were challenged just last year. And it’s not just America that decides what’s suitable for its citizens to read. Australia, too, has a long history of censorship. Just a few months ago an Adelaide bookshop was raided by police for selling Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho without the required plastic wrapper to keep under-eighteens from peeking between the pages.

To me, banning books is a way of limiting and controlling the circulation of information and ideas. It closes off discussions and silences voices. And in my book that’s never a good thing. The only reason I can see for someone needing to do that is fear, because the thing that’s being banned—be it a book, film, video game, newspaper, whatever—challenges their agenda. I feel really sad when I hear about schools banning ‘Harry Potter’ for its use of witchcraft, or Looking For Alaska because of a kiss and a boob honk. If the wave of a wand or a description of two teenagers kissing in a dorm room after lights out is enough to make kids start rebelling against whatever ideology they’ve been brought up to believe, I really don’t think the books are the problem.

It makes me angry that governments and other authority groups feel they have the right to control and limit knowledge through the banning of books, but it makes me especially upset when I hear about it happening in schools. For a start, it’s so incredibly patronising to young readers. It tells them that they aren’t capable of thinking reasonably and critically and that they can’t be trusted. School is where we should be teaching these exact skills, encouraging students to read actively and between the lines. Besides, kids are remarkably discerning readers. If a book is over their head, it’s not going to hold their interest. If it engages them, they’re probably ready for it. And yes, some books might start them questioning, they might even introduce them to concepts they find confusing or upsetting or challenge the ideas they’ve grown up with. But these are the books we most need in classrooms, to serve as starting points for discussions about difficult and controversial issues. And it makes me particularly angry that the issues that get these books blacklisted are often the ones kids most need to discuss.

Growing up, I was lucky. My parents encouraged me to read and trusted me to decide what I was and wasn’t ready for, and my schools weren’t into banning books. Except one. And it was an odd choice.

When I was in year three my mum surprised me with a stack of books from the library. Among them was John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began. If you’re an Australian kid who grew up in the nineties, you probably just did a fist pump. The ‘Tomorrow’ series was, is, *the best*. It’s also pretty graphic. As the title suggests it’s about a war. A bunch of kids return from a camping trip in rural NSW to find Australia under attack and their town occupied by enemy forces. Throughout the books the teenagers do some pretty grizzly things to survive, including killing people, and, spoiler alert, not all the kids make it out alive. My mum had no idea when she picked up the book. It was the old edition with show rides on the cover. It looks fairly harmless; the title could easily be metaphor.

She wasn’t to know the show ground was a POW camp.

Anyway. I started reading, got to the war bit, and decided it wasn’t something eight-year-old me was interested in. I forgot about it for a couple of years until the fourth book, Darkness, Be My Friend, came out and our junior school librarian read us the first few chapters. I still don’t understand why she did this. It’s right in the middle of the series, so picking up the story at that point was confusing. The book was shelved in the senior library, which we year sixes weren’t allowed to borrow from, and, as I later found out, she skipped over a sex scene.

That short reading piqued my interest. It was fast-paced, suspenseful—just my kind of story. And I was already a big Marsden fan. I went to the local library and checked out the series. The sex scene, when I came to it, was a surprise. And I greeted it with all the maturity you’d expect from an eleven-year-old. I nudged my best friend and we collapsed into fits of hysterical giggles during quiet reading time. The librarian confiscated the book and called my mother. I was utterly baffled—why get us interested in a book if we weren’t supposed to read it? And why blank out bits and not tell us? But here’s the thing I really don’t understand: if the librarian was going to take issue with the book, why is the sex scene the problem? Admittedly, that scene is not romantic. Ellie, the narrator, is drunk and a guy takes advantage. If I’d got my head around what I was reading, I wouldn’t have been laughing. But, bad as it sounds, in the list of awful things that happen to Ellie, this half-page scene barely rates. To get to that point I’d already read through hundreds of pages of gritty warfare: Ellie had watched friends die, shot people at point blank range and sprinted for her life under a hail of bullets. I had no problems understanding those bits, and they frightened me, but no one thought to take the books away then.

Flipping back through the series, my gut reaction is: these books are not suitable for primary school students. I’m kind of horrified that I read them so young. But what that tells me is that I’m not a good judge of what’s suitable because I loved these books as a kid. My copies are dog-eared from rereading and I was more than ready for them. The idea of missing out on them because someone who thought they knew better deemed them inappropriate makes me furious. Yes, they were scary and unsettling, but they weren’t traumatising. If anything, in Ellie they offered me an excellent role model—an ordinary Australian girl who shows extreme resourcefulness and resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity. As for that paragraph-long sex scene, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have even remembered it if the librarian hadn’t made such a fuss. I didn’t understand what I was reading, and it’s not central to the narrative. It only caught my eye because I recognised it as something the librarian had censored. Something illicit.

It still makes me really angry that she made me feel I was doing something wrong by reading. And that when she saw me and my friend giggling over the book, she took it away rather than talking to us about what we’d read and how we felt about it.

Other than teaching me to keep my books to myself, the librarian didn’t achieve anything by confiscating the book. She certainly didn’t stop me reading it. Mum gave it back to me that night and I finished it at home where it wouldn’t get me in trouble.

And I feel that’s what banning books in schools does. It forces kids to go underground with their reading, makes blacklisted titles more appealing and shuts off discussions. For me, this unwillingness to discuss the issues raised in stories is the real danger, not the stories themselves.

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