It's pure coincidence that I taught Nadine Gordimer's luminous, difficult Burger's Daughter during Banned Books Week this year. Banned in South Africa immediately upon its 1979 publication in the UK, Gordimer's novel is a fictional portrait of the daughter of white anti-apartheid activist Lionel Burger, who is loosely based on Bram Fischer, who, among other revolutionary actions, served as Nelson Mandela's lawyer. The book's central question -- to whom and what are we responsible? -- raises questions that are provocative even today about the nature of personal relationships and political responsibility. It's a profound novel of ideas, one of those big, important books that makes clear why Gordimer is a Nobel laureate.
I'm used to confronting books like this in my professional life. I'm less used to thinking about banned books in relation to my kids, who have not yet discovered Mark Twain or Vladmir Nabokov. And yet, Gordimer's book shares the list of censured and banned books with Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, which my son and I read for months straight last year, when he was in kindergarten. Pilkey's title has been banned four times since 2001 for anti-family content, promoting rudeness and "unruly" behavior, and offensive language. My son adored it. And for him, the series was a breakthrough reading experience, not so much in the sense that it taught him to read, but because these were the books that pulled him so deeply into their fictional world that they seemed to him real. Far from promoting anti-family values or unruly behavior, these were the books that made him leap into a bed with me when it was time to read and which brought him to tears when the series ended. They taught him to love books and the difficult, unruly world of the imagination. The vulgar, misspelled, deeply inappropriate hijinks of George and Harold taught him that it's okay to challenge authority, that there's great freedom in language, and that a sense of humor is a pretty good skill in life. These books are in every way the opposite of Burger's Daughter. They strive for no greater idea than to entertain kids (especially boys) and to give them something fun to read.
And isn't this exactly what we want for our kids -- that they love books? That they read? Does it really matter what they read?
The problem is not really the appropriate -- or inappropriateness -- of Pilkey's world. The problem is much bigger: we limit our kids' literacy all the time. As parents and educators, we ban books every day in all sorts of ordinary ways. Every time we tell our kids that a picture book is "too easy"; or when we steer them away from a graphic novel or comic book; or when we refuse to read them that encyclopedia at bedtime; or when we encourage them to read a chapter book instead of that how-to manual or that investigation of the giant squid, or even that beginning reader tie-in about that movie we hate; every time we limit our kids reading, we are effectively banning books. But kids should read what they want to read. If they can read it, they should be able to read it. I won't censure my kids reading, and I will read to them any book they bring to me. Including How Things Work. Again.
The most heartbreaking experience on my book tour last spring occurred during a meet-and-greet at a terrific independent bookstore in New Jersey. A mother and her adolescent son came in, and he made a beeline straight for The Invention of Hugo Cabret. She grabbed it from him, thumbed through it, and looked at him sternly. "Why do you want to read this book with all these pages?"
"I heard it was really good."
She drew a breath and he sat down on an ottoman, already defeated. She went on. "Let me tell you what's wrong with this book. It's all pictures. It's like that other book you were just reading, that whaddyacallit graphic novel, the one with all those pictures, about the mouse?"
After she was quiet, he pulled out a handheld device and began playing games. They left without buying a book. Booksellers have told me they witness this scene all the time.
It shouldn't matter what kids want to read. They should just read. If they want to spend half an hour doing MadLibs, or reading a sports magazine, or a comic book, or novel or a fix-it book, or a book of jokes they should. It's all reading. Because in spite of the reasons why I read, or ask my grad students to read, or why teachers tell students to read -- to experience other worlds and other people, etc. etc. -- we read -- and need to read -- for a lot of different reasons. We read for information. We read for explanation. We read because we are curious. We read to relax. We read to laugh. We read to be thrilled or shocked. We read for answers. We read to figure out other lives. We read to find our own lives.
We read in hundreds of different ways, every day. And so should our kids. But they won't if we don't let them.