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Opinion: Books are not land mines

These books have been banned in several public schools and libraries across the U.S. amid a wave of book censorship and restrictions.
Ted Shaffrey
These books have been banned in several public schools and libraries across the U.S. amid a wave of book censorship and restrictions.

The American Library Association and PEN America say there's been a sharp increase in the number of books pulled from school libraries over the past two years. One complaint that a book is obscene or offensive — from a parent, or, increasingly, a group — can be enough to have it removed from the shelves.

The books that get singled out often feature main characters who are LGBTQIA, or people of color. Many address racism, child abuse, sex, suicide, and other topics that young people may want help understanding.

Some of the most-pulled titles include Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe; The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; Looking For Alaska by John Green; and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

I wonder if those who want to keep certain books out of school libraries have thought through how many teens and adolescents react when they're told not to read something: they do it anyway. And avidly. They wonder — I certainly did — what are adults trying to keep from me?

If you read an unapproved book, there are no pop quizzes. You don't have to highlight, underline, or answer test questions like, "What is the symbolism of the penguin in the garage on page 87?" There's no 500-word essay, with a thesis paragraph and quotes. You can just enjoy it. Or not. No teacher will scold, "Can't you see it's a classic?" You can read books you're not supposed to for fun, excitement, to learn something, or just to get lost in the story.

But Laurie Halse Anderson, the acclaimed writer of young adult novels, cautions me. Her much-honored novel, Speak, narrated by a teenage rape survivor, has been pulled from quite a few library shelves, too.

"Even if bans or challenges make a book more intriguing," Laurie reminded us, "many of our nation's children will not be able to access books that are removed. Millions of our families can't afford to buy books. Countless families live in library deserts — areas without a reachable public library. And libraries across the country are struggling with horrifying budget cuts."

Libraries are meant to be places where you can wander, browse, try on thoughts, read, reject, rejoice, or simply brood about the world. Books shouldn't be treated like land mines that have to be removed before they can light up our minds.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.