The teenage rebel has become a treasured image in American culture. In fact, phrases like “pushing boundaries” and “classic teenage rebellion” frequently worm their way into conversations about adolescents. Now, I generally don’t put any stock in the accuracy of stereotypes, especially about stereotypes about teenagers. However, every nostalgic conversation among my colleagues or friends includes confessions from each individual’s brief past as a teenage rebel. Whether it’s skipping school, sneaking out to a party, or simply dressing as bizarrely as possible, practically everyone has a memory of teenage rule-breaking–or at least rule-bending. Even I clearly recall my version of teenage rebellion–perhaps because the experience helped shape my current career.
Like many strange and wonderful stories, this one begins in eighth grade English class. The curriculum included To Kill A Mockingbird and Fahrenheit 451–two novels that frequently feature in school assignments and lists of American classics. Both titles also regularly appear on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list compiled by the American Library Association. I can’t recall if we discussed book banning and challenges during our study of To Kill A Mockingbird, but the subject obviously came up during of our reading of Fahrenheit 451. Being a passionate reader, the situation described in Fahrenheit 451–a future where books have become illegal and book burning is the specialty of firemen–was my worst nightmare. Books were my escape, my dearest companions and my guides. The thought of outlawing books was unthinkably horrific–especially when I learned that book banning was still a reality here in the U.S.
I recall becoming particularly obsessed with a portion of Ray Bradbury’s “Coda” to the novel; the page in the back of my skinny paperback is creased from re-reading. He succinctly summarizes the events leading up the novel’s reality: “books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shuts and the libraries closed forever” (177). While I learned a great deal in U.S. History class that year, it was Ray Bradbury’s image of empty and abandoned libraries that pushed me to think about the First Amendment on a more concrete level. How does the protection of free speech play out in real life? How slippery is the slope separating a small group’s objection and removal of a book to the book-burning police state imagined in Bradbury’s novel? I didn’t necessarily have answers yet but the questions stuck with me, simmering in the back of my mind.
During my sophomore year, a new librarian arrived, promptly formed our first student library advisory board, and introduced Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week quickly became one of my favorite annual events. Over the next few years, we ran activities ranging from the creation of posters focused on banned or challenged books to an all-night readathon to a showing of the film Pleasantville.
But through our discussions and event planning, my interest in intellectual freedom issues expanded beyond the personal outrage of a bibliophile. Reading through the book challenge lists during our early September meetings, I was shocked to see not only controversial classics like To Kill A Mockingbird or Fahrenheit 451 but also some of my recent favorites, like 2013 Margaret A. Edwards Award winner Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet and the Harry Potter series. I learned about the history of book banning and read the rationales behind contemporary challenges. I began to notice trends among the books challenged or banned. For example, the yearly frequently challenged books list compiled by the ALA regularly includes an overwhelming number of children’s and young adult books and a large number of the challenges recorded take place at schools or in the youth services’ departments of public libraries. People seemed particularly interested in controlling which books I, as a teenager, could read. And while I might be willing to go along with curfews, homework requirements, and the school dress code, I was definitely not willing to follow rules dictating my choice of reading material.
Moreover, our celebrations of Banned Books Week demonstrated the power, value, and impact of literature in ways that neither my book obsession nor beloved English classes could. I had known that books were valuable to me as an individual for years, but it was through Banned Books Week that I came to understand the power books could wield in the larger world. Books are banned or challenged because they are powerful. The right novel can allow the voiceless of our society to be heard. Stories give each of us the ability to, in the words of Atticus Finch, walk around in someone else’s skin for a while. Books challenge stereotypes & systems; they force us to confront our blind spots & prejudices. They can save lives and spark revolutions. Books can honestly change the world–but only if they remain available to the readers who need them.
While my teenage rebellion might appear a bit tame, my small role in the fight to defend intellectual freedom set a fire in me that hasn’t gone out. Planning Banned Books Week events, I felt empowered by the opportunity to work alongside my peers and librarians to promote our equal rights to read freely. I experienced the excitement of involvement with a cause and gained a fuller understanding of literature’s complex power. So as I entered my final year of college and tried to sort out a career path, my high school library experiences–especially our thrilling Banned Book Weeks–drifted to the front of my mind. It seemed too good to be true that I might be able to recapture that joy and sense of purpose in a job. But I decided to give it a shot anyway–and happily, the rest is history.
How has Banned Books Week affected you? What memories or experiences have shaped your ideas about censorship and intellectual freedom?
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson
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