Laurie Hertzel on the Danger of Banning Books for Children ‹ Literary Hub


Childrens books have always been an important part of my life. They made a reader out of me, starting not with the Dick and Jane books, which even as a child I thought were silly, but with fairy tales, and picture books like Paddle to the Sea, and with a wonderful anthology of stories and poems called Beloved Tales that my parents gave me for Christmas. I still have that book, though the cover is long gone and the first few pages are scribbled on with crayon. By me. I was always a big believer in claiming books as my own and wrote my name in them in big crooked letters.

One year my parents gave me Little Town on the Prairie for my birthday, not realizing, I guess, that it was not the first in the series. One of my fathers professor friends came by the house and saw me reading. He crouched down to eye-levelalways a great way to talk to childrenand asked me what I thought of the book. Nobody had ever asked me that question before, but Ace Levangs wife was a librarian and he was good with kids. I had just read the opening chapter, which was only a few paragraphs long, and so I said, “Well, the chapters are short.”

He laughed, though I hadnt been trying to be funny. I guess that was my very first book review. I did get better.

When I was in high school, I had a job working in the childrens room of the Duluth public library. This was in the early 1970s, the time when Maurice Sendaks picture book In the Night Kitchen first came out, and there was, across the country, as well as in Duluth, the predictable outrage from a few people about a picture book for children that had illustrations that depicted full frontal male nudity. Full frontal male nudity of a baby, that is. I know now that some librarians elsewhere in the country painted little diapers on the books character, Mickey. Some took exacto knives out and cut out the offensive parts of the body. This was a way, they claimed, to keep the book on the shelves.

The wonderful librarians that I worked for, Virginia Hyvarinen and Eleanora McCorison, did not do this. They thought Sendaks book was delightful. And it was, magical and weird and dream-like.

This was also right around the time when Judy Blumes novel for young teens, Are You There, God, Its Me, Margaret was being challenged, I guess because it dealt with real things that real teen girls worry aboutthe size of their breasts, their periods, boys, and confusion about religion.

Theres an odd belief among some adults that children would not think about these things if they didnt read about them in books. Which is, of course, nonsense.

Again, some peopleIm not sure who or how manycomplained about this book. Theres an odd belief among some adults that children would not think about these things if they didnt read about them in books. Which is, of course, nonsense. When youre a teen girl, this is pretty much all you think about. And to find a book that reflects that is such a relief, so affirming and helpful. And yet some adults thought the book was going to taint the innocence of their daughters. And so they tried to have it banned.

For a while Mrs. Hyvarinen and Mrs. McCorison put the Judy Blume book behind the library desk and only circulated it to people who specifically asked for it. And then after a while the hoopla died down and the book went back onto the shelves, where it belonged.

At the time I was, as I said, in high school, where I was reading Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare and George Eliot and Geoffrey Chaucer for classes, but the librarians knew where my heart was and they pulled books off the shelves in the YA room for me and every night I smuggled home a big tote bag full of childrens books and devoured them after my homework was done. I was embarrassed, at first, to be reading books for “children” but Mrs. Hyvarinen and Mrs. McCorison were so enthusiastic about these books that they won me over. They read them too.

They were the ones who told me about Jean Georges My Side of the Mountain. They told me about Gary Paulsen. They told me about the late-published final Little House book, The First Four Years. Which I had not known about, despite having read the entire series many times over.

They told me to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which is not actually about a witch but is about a misunderstood woman who goes against the mores and traditions of seventeenth-century New England.

Their open-mindedness helped open my mind. Every kid should have opportunities like these.

It was in childrens books, like Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables where I saw myself, or more accurately I saw a better version of myselfI saw feisty girls who pursued their dreams, refused to give in, fought back. Most of them wanted to become writers, and they wrote. This was not me back then– I was a pretty milquetoast little girl myself, shy and passive– but these books gave me hope and showed me how a smallish bespectacled person such as myself could achieve things.

Do you remember the last scene in Harriet the Spy when she lugs the typewriter upstairs and starts typing furiously? And she says something like “Wait ’til the New Yorker gets a load of this!” And that line delighted me so much. And it wasnt long before I sent my own short story to The New Yorker. (They sent it back.)

Every child should have the opportunity to read books in which they see themselves, or see better versions of themselves, or find hope or inspiration or understanding. Every child. This is one of many, many reasons why banning books is wrong and why we need more diverse books for children.

I was lucky to grow up in a family that valued books. My parents never tried to control what I read and they never took a book away from me, not even when I tried to read Myra Breckendridge, which I knew was dirty but did not know why. And I was lucky to work with librarians like Mrs. Hyvarinan and Mrs. McCorison.

But children should not have to rely on luck and fortune to find books that reflect their lives, inspire them, give them hope, show them characters who are like themselves. Every child should have access to such books.

In this ridiculous and dangerous time, childrens books are being banned at a rate unseen in decades, and in a much more concerted way than back in the 1970s.

For a variety of reasons, there are a lot of people out there who are trying to stop children from readingnot just stopping their own children, but stopping all children. Some statesTexas, Iowahave passed laws that hold librarians and teachers responsible if books they dont particularly like are found in school libraries.

Overwhelmingly the books that are banned are books that are about GLBT children, or are about people of color. Overwhelmingly, these bans are of new books, because for so long books that reflected the lives of children of color or gay or trans children were few and far between. And so the more these books enter the mainstream, the more certain adults fight against them.

And they are also banning books for very young children, books that they fear or pretend they fear “indoctrinate” children.

Books like And Tango Makes Three, the true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo in New York City who took in a baby penguin and helped rear it together. This book was banned in Florida and Texas. Because it apparently violates the “Dont Say Gay” law, though, frankly, I didnt think penguins say “gay,” at least not in English.

These self-appointed censors are banning Separate Is Never Equal, the nonfiction picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh which tells the story of Sylvia Mendez, whose family tried to integrate California schools. Little Sylvia was turned away from her school and told to join the Mexican school instead. This book has been banned in Pennsylvania and Texas, because it apparently made a white child feel uncomfortable.

There are other ways to ban books, or at least to quash the sentiment behind the book.

Love in the Libraryis a beautiful picture book by Maggie Tokuda-Hall. It is based on the romance of the authors grandparents, who fell in love in the library at Minidoka, the internment camp in Idaho where the United States incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

The book was not banned, exactly, but Scholastic books wanted to reprint it and place it in classrooms all over the countryan attractive offer for an author. But they wanted to be allowed to edit it, removing the word “racist” and removing some of the historical context in the back of the book. This is worse, but similar to, the solution of putting a diaper on Mickey in Sendaks book. It is what Sendaks publisher Ursula Nordstrom called “an act of censorship by mutilation rather than by obvious suppression.”

Tokuda-Hall said absolutely not.

If you havent, I think you should buy these books. They are all moving and lovely.

So why is all this book banning happening now? Because books are powerful. Because books are democratic. Because there is no better way to understand yourself and othersmost importantly, to understand othersthan through stories.

Think about how much books meant to me as a child. And then think how there are forces out there trying their hardest to prevent other children from finding that same inspiration, that same hope, that same feeling that they are understood somewhere by someone, that they are not alone.

I cant think about how important books were to me as a child without thinking about how books should be important to all children, and from there it was an easy jump to think about how so many children are being actively denied this crucial part of growing up.

I cant think about how important books were to me as a child without thinking about how books should be important to all children, and from there it was an easy jump to think about how so many children are being actively denied this crucial part of growing up.

There are organizations out there that are fighting this. PEN America just opened a branch office in Florida to fight the book banning there. The office is funded, in part, by a cadre of authors, including Judy Blume.

The National Coalition Against Censorship is doing good work. As is the organization We Need Diverse Books.

There are organizations that are dedicated to giving books to children, instead of taking them away, such as Literacy Minnesota and Reach Out and Read, which gives books to children who are visiting the doctor.

I hope you support these organizations, if you can. I hope you support your local bookstores that carry these books and your local libraries which lend these books and above all I hope you support librarians, who are fighting the good fighta harder fight, and a more important fight, than ever.


A version of this essay was given at the awards ceremony for the Kerlan Award.

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