Don't ban books that could save a teen's life, says reading advocate
Gay, depressed and bullied teens have all found comfort in books someone has wanted to ban, says an international advocate for reading.
"Ask any Young Adult author and he or she will show you the thank you letters from teens who say 'you saved my life'," says Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association for Intellectual Freedom.
The Association is a key sponsor of Banned Books Week, which kicks off in the United States on September 27 – five days before New Zealand decision-makers meet to determine the fate of Ted Dawe's teen-read Into the River, currently subject to an order that makes it illegal to sell or loan.
Banned Books Week, launched in 1982, has "Young Adult" as this year's theme because of the high proportion of those books targeted by censors, says Jones. (In the United States, they routinely account for half the Top 10 list of banned and challenged books).
"Young adults face a very challenging and complex world, full of issues of diversity, violence, and health challenges," says Jones. "That means that we need books, more than ever, to address these topics.
"Young people need these books precisely because in their world, they need to learn to navigate these rough waters . . . and they have found that books not only make them think, they reassure them that they are not alone."
Jones says the best way to encounter a disturbing idea is in a book – alongside a community prepared to work through any issues raised.
"The faith community learned this lesson with Harry Potter. When they understood that children were going to read these books, witchcraft or not, they began to look at the positive things about Harry: his loyalty to his friends; his wanting to honour his parents; his fight against evil; etc.
"There is a lot the faith community can do to support the reading of banned books in youth groups and the like – instead of banning these books, which is a sure way to have kids read them in hiding."
Jones says people in all countries should fight censorship in any form.
"We can't take free speech for granted. Just like so many freedoms, it can be taken away from us book by book by book. One book removal does matter."
It's impossible, says Jones, to protect young people from conflicting and disturbing ideas.
"Unfortunately, a lot of kids experience a lot of conflict within their homes. It is important, now more than ever, that young people can wrestle with ideas in a book – on their own terms, in private if they like.
"It is important that they have a space to encounter these ideas, instead of being forced to hide the book. Think of gay teens. Depressed teens who don't have a parent to talk to. Successful teens who want to understand the wider world so they can volunteer. Teens working a part-time job with ethnic minorities they have never encountered. Think of a teen who encounters violence or bullying at school – all of these issues are topics in Young Adult books."