Banned Books 101: Teaching Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Early Elementary Grades about the Right to Read

Back in the trenches this week reviewing some recent picture books introducing younger readers to the concept of censorship.  Liberal values and a clever concept will get the project off and running, but good intentions may not be enough to avoid the potholes, such as explaining why it can happen, how it can affect them, and what is at stake.

All great topics for a board book modeled on the Baby Lit series.  “In this colorful celebration of groundbreaking books that have appeared on “banned” book lists, little readers get a glimpse into the books’ important themes,” gurgles the blurb.  In Baby’s First Book of Banned Books, the little rebel in the making should be engaged with the six- to seven- word themes and illustrations by Laura Korzon. “ I have gifts that are special” sums up Lois Lowry’s chapter book The Giver (1993) versus “My friends can help when I’m sad or scared” for YA novel Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wall Flower  (1999).  Compare with “We’re not so different you and me” for Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner (2003);  and “I am beautiful” for Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970).  The glossary provides parents with scripts with talking points so that they can deftly avoid in dialogue with their preliterate children the subjects that got the books banned in the first place such as rape, heavy recreational drug use, oppression and ostracization of minorities, trauma, and mental illness.  Tone deaf?  Cynical?

In 2018, Raj Haldar, aka Philadelphia rapper Lushlife, hit the jackpot as the coauthor of  P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Ever, showing why it’s easier to learn to read than spell in English.  With 26 letters, 45 sounds and over 250 ways to put them together, there are too many choices and too many rules.   An exasperating subject that lends itself to humor, but is the same true for book banning?

Haldar and illustrator Julia Patton in This Book is Banned (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks eXplore, 2023) to fool around with a silly narrator and cook up squirrelly reasons for chopping things out of a book.  The cover, endpapers, and title page warn the reader to keep it closed. The narrator, confronted with the disobedient reader says go ahead, turn the page and see how any subject can be cancelled—giraffes, dinosaurs, avocados and beds without monsters underneath.  No can have the story of the Big Bad Wolf because somebody–not  the reader– was scared and so he was changed into a sweetie pie.  The last page announces that “we banned everything and there’s no ending left to read.”  The way Haldar and Patton break the fourth wall makes for a couple fun read alouds,  but it won’t be much of a resource if you have to explain why book banners are turning up the pressure on the school librarian.  Giraffes and avocados aren’t likely to be on the school board’s agenda.

In The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale, Aya Khalil tries to make a book banning in an elementary school library real for children that age.  The protagonist is Kanzi, the Egyptian immigrant girl in Khalil’s first book The Arabic Quilt (2020). Kanzi and her class go  to the library where they are told the diverse books have been removed on the order of the school board over the objection of the school librarian who acquired them for the boys and girls.  The children don’t understand what could possibly be wrong with the beautiful books they like for showing everyone “people of many identities, backgrounds, and walks of life.”  The principal and librarian urge them to fight for their right to read and the children hit on the idea to hold a bake sale of goodies mentioned in banned books within a few days.  The proceeds will go towards the purchase of replacement copies of books that about families like theirs.  When the sweets are all sold, the TV cameras arrive in time to film the peaceful demonstration urging the reversal of the ban and Kanzi finding the courage to read aloud her poem “Books are for everyone.  Am I not important?  Am I invisible?”   The school board backs down a week later and the diverse books are reinstated in their cases.

An Arab Muslim American mother, Khalil strongly advocates that black, brown, Asian, Native American, and immigrant (but not LGBTQUIA) children have access to “affirming, inclusive books” in this optimistic story where the characters agree wholeheartedly on what is right (and puff Khalil’s Arabic Quilt in several places).  Without the opposition being on stage to voice alternative values, the nature of social conflict and resolution has been simplified to the act of standing up for a set of beliefs without having to discuss and negotiate with those with a different viewpoint. Khalil and her illustrator Anait Semirdzhyan chose in The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale to light the spark of democratic participation by showing the triumph of authority on the first try, underscoring why a 32-page picture books may not be the best vehicle for the illustration of political processes.

There is nothing sunny or optimistic about the treatment of censorship in Banned Book by Jonah Winter, a noted author of non-fiction picture books.    Few of the Amazon reviewers disliked the book and gave the impression that they thought it was relevant and important because of the subject.  Winter’s text is redacted with words, phrases, and sentences blacked out with a reason for obliterating them to protect the reader from dangerous content. Almost everyone with a comment about the graphic design seemed to agree that as an explanation of the process of censorship, it was better suited for older children, who still would have difficult questions for an adult.

The blacking out creates intriguing patterns on the page without interrupting the flow of meaning because no text has actually been excised, as is quite clear on the last two pages.  In spite of the black lozenges marching across line after line, the message is unequivocal: “claim that they only want to protect children when what they really want is power over everyone, because they don’t believe other people have the right to think for themselves.  What had been a book was not just garbage decomposing, turning into dirt.”   Would the same exercise driven the same point home more forcefully to young readers if the text had been a familiar fairy tale like “Cinderella” or “Red Riding Hood” and they could puzzle out the missing bits of text and respond to their absence?

Illustrator Gary Kelley’s grainy pictures are dominated by shades of blue-gray, slate blue, and grayish lavender, with occasional highlights of tans and pale oranges communicate the idea that the battle has already been lost in the classroom and school library.  On the first page, a boy furtively looks into a book, as if he expects to be caught and a few pages later is a staring eye peering at a page through a magnifying glass looking for objectionable material.   Children sit mute in class, books open, their hands raised to answer a question to which there is only one answer. Hot red appears only in the two illustrations of the book banners and the devils on the cover.  The association of  the book banners with red sends mixed signals,  its contemporary associations with MAGA clashing with older left-wing ones such as Socialism and Communism.  Of this dystopian picture book, the one Amazon reviewer to give the book one star said, “A bit too stylized and dark for me. As for the text—I’m all for guiding kids to appropriate books and helping them process the difficult ones, but this book (as much as I was able to stomach) came across as bitter, didactic, and self-righteous.”

No denying how wonderful it is that Haldar, Khalil, and Winter all acknowledge librarians in their picture books for standing up for children’s right to read in the face of challenges by administrators, parents, and outside organizations, even if a tired old stereotype is perpetuated… From the perspective of a professional with the luxury of buying books capturing the contemporary moment for the future, it is hard to gauge if they can be effective teaching tools with the support of a thoughtful adult or if their presence on the shelves will be more successful in pouring oil on the fire in the struggle for control over curriculum and supporting resources.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Banning YA Books

The clashes between  my mother and a librarian over access to potentially objectionable books sound impossibly quaint now. My mother’s observation to me that the books in the children’s section weren’t challenging enough was a directive to explore the adult section of the Manhattan Beach Public Library.  I sneaked  past the circulation desk to avoid the disapproving Mrs. Brown and slithered into the W-Zs of adult fiction. The authors’ names on the spines were unfamiliar, but “Wodehouse” on a top shelf caught my eye and I pulled out one of the misadventures of Bertie Wooster, complete with gaspers,  cocktails, and morning-after cures.  I was allowed to check it out, but then I hadn’t handed over The Portrait of Dorian Grey.  Another time Mrs. Brown refused to let me have a book from the adult section until she spoke with my mother, who coolly confirmed that I had her permission. Mrs. Brown pulled a sour face while the transaction was completed.

I have no idea what Mrs. Brown would have made of the new policy of the Hamilton East Public Library in Indianapolis to relocate sexually explicit YA books to which parents have objections to the adult section. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal,  Daniel Lee looked at this “culture-war skirmish,” which John Green, the beloved Indianapolis writer whose acclaimed YA novels  Looking for Alaska and The Fault Is in Our Stars were targeted, denounced  the move as “political theater of the lowest and most embarrassing order.”

Green’s novels, which feature young characters struggling with class conflict, dysfunctional families, terminal illness, and chronic depression, who also chain-smoke, experiment with sex, binge-drink and drive,  Lee suggested, would not have resonated with Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, whose Hoosier boyhood in the early twentieth century was unmarked by any trauma more devastating than surviving cotillions.  Penrod, says Lee, “knew which bathroom to use.”    He continues:

Yes, some young people today are in terrible situations.  But it seems profoundly pessimistic—and ideologically loaded—to think most kids don’t live lives much like Penrod’s and worse, that they lack parents who are eager and competent to help when trouble comes.

Unfortunately, coverage of book bannings in public schools and libraries often contain glib comparisons, which score points at the expense of oversimplifying the difficulty of judging the contents of the books in contention.  Lee’s description of Penrod suggests he didn’t read Tarkington very carefully or he might have noticed that this once classic American novel about boyhood contains any number of awkward situations similar to Tom Sawyer or Peck’s Bad Boy that don’t involve precocious sexual activity.

The cotillion episode, which Lee considered anodyne, is a good example of Penrod acting on impulse for purely selfish reasons.  The day of the cotillion he discovers a basket of expired medicines, dentifrices, hair oil, condiments gone off, etc. in the stable put out for the trash.  After he and his friend Sam set up a drug store to fill prescriptions, Sam mixes up some “small pox medicine” using the contents of the basket and part of a bottle of licorice water to make it look palatable.  Penrod’s dog Duke the tester can’t keep it down and the boys dream of administering a dose to Professor Bartlett, which would lead to the cotillion’s cancellation.  Instead their frenemy Maurice Levy saunters by.  Penrod resorts to a desperate measure to take out Maurice, so he, with two left feet, can squire the adored Marjorie Jones and hand off his partner Baby Rennsdale to Sam, whose fair lady has had to send regrets.  Maurice is invited to drink as much licorice water as he can in one pull and the bottle of small pox medicine is substituted for the real one.   He swallows it all, has a smoke, and heads home without exhibiting any ill effects to change for cotillion.

Left unsupervised to an extent unimaginable today, eleven-year-old Penrod has acted on enough ideas like this one to have earned the reputation as the worst boy in town.  His family worries that he is headed for the penitentiary.  The ladies in town tut-tut about the ineffectual Schofields when his  mother and sister aren’t present.  Certain families forbid their sons to associate with him.  His peers, on the other hand, take vicarious pleasure in his antics, like talking back to the teacher and managing to elude punishment temporarily with the claim he was exhausted from comforting his distraught aunt, who has taken refuge from her drunken, abusive husband with the Schofields.   A tall tale  inspired by the silent film he watched when he should have been in Sunday school.

If Penrod’s reputation was affected by his friendship with the Black brothers, Herman and Verman, who live in the nearby alley, Tarkington didn’t come out and say so.  What strikes us now are the ambiguities of the power dynamics between the white boy and two “darkies.”  Verman suffers from ankyloglossia and his words have to be translated by his older brother Herman.  Herman is missing a forefinger, because his little brother chopped it off with an axe when told to as a joke. The boys’ father is in jail term for stabbing a man with a pitchfork.  Penrod finds  Herman and Verman so fascinating that he immediately proposes to Sam they could be the star attractions of a show.

Equally troubling  is the Rupe Collins episode.  An older white boy from the wrong side of town comes around to play, which means he bullies and tortures Penrod and Sam.  Verman whacks Rupe with a board to make him stop and gets called the N-word.  Herman tells Rupe to lay off his brothers and his friends, setting off a terrific fight, in which the rules of fair play are suspended, while Penrod and Sam watch on the sidelines. Verman opens hostilities by striking Rupe with a rake because in “his simple, direct, African way, he wished to kill his enemy…and to kill him as soon as possible.”  The brawl comes to an end when Herman grabs a scythe and threatens to cut out Rupe’s gizzard and eat it.  It was probably trash talk, but Penrod and Sam are too shaken by the brothers’ “unctuous merriment” after their victory to say thank you.

Tarkington’s Penrod can’t be characterized as a book written back in the good old days when children were still innocent a hundred years ago.  Daniel Lee’s assertion in the Wall Street Journal that in the novel still reflects the circumstances of many children’s lives today was an oversimplification supporting the comforting illusion that classic books are alternatives to contemporary problem YA novels which hold up a mirror to contemporary teenagers” lives.  However excessive realism is defined, the line where it crosses over to the exploitative is always being redrawn in contemporary discussions. But the analysis will be more productive the more carefully the books in question are studied.

Yes, critical race theory is integral to George M. Johnson’s manifesto-memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue. The author’s search for a meaningful, fulfilled sex life as a gay man is too, but that account, which is not overly graphic, occupies far fewer pages than you might expect, given the book’s notoriety.   What the book’s critics neglect to say (probably because they haven’t read it), is that it’s also a warm, loving tribute to the Black family that had his back while he was growing up painfully conscious of being different and unsure where he belonged.  The book is worth reading just for the portrait of his Nana, with whom he was very close, or his memories of jumping Double Dutch with the girls, to mention just two passages.  Don’t damn a book without giving the author a chance and don’t praise it without a detailed sense of how the strengths and weaknesses may be intertwined.  Regardless of when a book was written, it is probably more complex than its reputation.