A right to read

Lately I’ve been obsessed with young-adult fiction, a rekindled habit born from an early love for all things Judy Blume, whose Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was a personal game changer.

I’ve got a sweet tooth for genre fiction—horror, fantasy, sci-fi—but my true addiction lies with realistic literary endeavors such as Leah Hager Cohen’s Heart, You Bully, You Punk, Ibi Kaslik’s Skinny and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The latter book is a grimly funny tale about a high-school sophomore dealing with, among other issues, the popularity hierarchy, family secrets and his best friend’s suicide.

It’s also third on the American Library Association’s 2009 Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Books list, because it explores sexuality, death and religion. Oh, and there’s a lot of swearing, too.

The ALA will commemorate Banned Books Week, September 25 to October 2; the organization’s annual observation is a celebration of “the freedom to read” and a counterpoint to parents who aim to take books off library shelves for so-called objectionable content.

The ALA’s Banned Book Week mission statement, “Free Access to Libraries for Minors,” a youth-oriented update to the Library Bill of Rights, maintains that “Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.”

It’s a worthwhile reminder that a morally indignant few shouldn’t govern the whole.

The ALA’s 2009 list (the 2010 list has yet to be revealed) serves up some of the usual literary suspects, including J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—the latter which is challenged on charges of offensive language and racism.

Of course To Kill a Mockingbird contains racist content—that’s one of its major themes, not a condoning of such beliefs. It’s a book teachers use to teach ideas about race and class, and that’s why it routinely shows up on high-school reading lists.

It’s bad enough that some try to ban books that students have historically read because they have to—it’s perhaps worse that there are those who try to ban the books they pick up because they want to.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series routinely makes the list—even as educators and booksellers have praised the way her imaginative fiction encourages kids to put down the TV or gaming remote in favor of a thick novel.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series isn’t immune to the wrath of parents, either. Never mind that abstinence is one of the book’s biggest themes—all that sexy vampire brooding must be shut down.

But it was Lauren Myracle’s Internet Girls series, a collection of stories conveyed entirely via instant message, that topped the 2009 list, thanks to depictions or suggestions of nudity, sex, drugs and offensive language.

Myracle’s books are hardly great literature—the books are kind of crappy actually, but that’s not the point.

The point is that young girls are willingly reading them between their own online chatfests, between homework marathons and between TV sessions during which they tune into Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries or any other prime-time network show.

And, unlike the Internet, required homework reading and television, those books are, likely, integral to fostering a lifelong habit of reading books for pleasure.

It’s been years since I first read Blume’s 1970 classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The book, about an adolescent girl struggling with puberty and religious identity, still routinely makes the Banned Book list.

I’m thankful that there are librarians and educators endeavoring to preserve individual choice for today’s parents, and I’m thankful my parents were smart enough to let me make my own literary decisions—I don’t know who I’d be without that freedom.