06/28/2007 03:28 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Banning "Bad" Books Is Not the Answer

When I read about PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools), I couldn't help but be intrigued. What's a "bad" book? I'm sure you have an answer to that, as do I, but for this group, "bad" isn't a subjective opinion about whether or not you enjoyed a particular work of literature, but rather a pejorative, objective ruling that seeks to limit the kinds of reading children do.

But PABBIS's list of "bad" books, which I found through a link from Maureen Johnson (who I got to via Galleycat), author of the recently embattled young adult novel, The Bermudez Triangle, cuts a wide swathe, ranging from Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina to Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and Richard Wrights's Black Boy. Seemingly any reference to sex, drugs, cursing or homosexuality qualifies a book for "bad" status. Tellingly, the example for Stacey D'Erasmo's A Seahorse Year only covers the first chapter ("Chapter 2, 3, etc: Who knows..."). The theory seems to be that if kids don't read about certain topics, they won't encounter them in real life. Quips Johnson, "The PABBIS list is actually kind of handy. I'd just use it as a required reading list, as most of the books on there are classics."

Bermudez, Johnson's latest novel, features three young women who have to deal with the way a budding lesbian relationship among two of them affects their friendship trio. "I went about the writing of the book in a very deliberate way. I didn't censor myself, but I wanted the book to focus on the relationships. It's not a sex book. There are lots of good sex books out there. This was a book to -- for lack of a better way of putting it -- normalize the experience of homosexuality in a high school setting. This is like mild salsa." Whereas I was drawn to the book on a recent bookstore visit and bought it because it featured a queer relationship, a parent of a student attending Oklahoma's Bartlesville Mid-High Library saw fit to complain about the book, causing it to be yanked from the library. It's since been reinstated, but on a special reserve shelf where students have to have a signed permission slip from a parent to check it out. For some additional perspectives, see young adult author John Green's YouTube video about the banning, as well as a Bartlesville resident's take on the situation (she also writes on her blog that this incident is "giving Bartlesville a horrible reputation.")

Of the complainer, Johnson says, "I was pretty shocked to find out that this was the first book that had ever been pulled from the shelves of this school in its remembered history, at least 20 years or so. Then I read the complaint letter about it, and was boggled to read that the book: 'has no moral fiber, and wrongly promotes a 'do whomever you want to discover yourself' mentality.' There's no mention of the myriad of diseases, pregnancy, destruction of friendships and lives that are very real consequences of a 'sexual free-for-all' decision."

For a book with no sex in it, that's quite an achievement. I didn't want to be horrible and peevish (but I was anyway) by pointing out that a.) you need to have sex to get pregnant and b.) it's not the kind of sex that would have been in this book, if there had been any. This total lack of lesbian sex pretty much explains why I didn't discuss pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases."

I think parents should be active and involved with what their kids are reading ─ in books, magazines, and online. But "active and involved" doesn't necessarily mean dictatorial. Rather, by discussing what children are reading and seeing on television with them, helping them figure out what's fantasy and what's not, and learning that they can, in fact, get along with people who are different from them, parents would do a much greater service to their kids than by simply telling them what's "bad."

When I was around 12 years old, I developed my lifelong taste for "trashy" books (and will here send a nod of delight to the wonderful site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books). I got quickly hooked on Judith Kranz and Danielle Steele, and while my mom preferred me to read more "appropriate" fare, she was pretty lenient, even with my foray into true crime (I loved to scare myself with Ann Rule's latest). The one book I was forbidden to get was Sidney Sheldon's The Third Deadly Sin. Of course, the more she denied me, the more intrigued I was (why the third and not the first or second, I'm not sure). "When you're 18," she told me, and the truth is, by the time I got to 18, I wasn't interested anymore, but looking back, I think I would've been able to handle whatever Sheldon threw my way.

About the desire to protect children, Johnson says it more eloquently (and humorously) than I could. "It's completely understandable and commendable that a parent should get involved in his or her child's education. But when you begin restricting your child's experience to your own limited field of knowledge, you're narrowing your child. You're doing much more harm than good. Narrowing the field of experience and the level of understanding . . . that's pretty much the definition of a society working its way towards implosion. It's like mental inbreeding."