Friday, September 30, 2011

why you should read banned books to your kids

We're nearing the end of Banned Books Week, an appropriate time to introduce your child to Captain Underpants if you haven't already. Captain Underpants is the widely popular children's books series by awarded author Dav Pilkey. Diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia in elementary school, he was frequently reprimanded for his behavior in class and often sat at a desk in the school hallway where he created the Captain Underpants character: a superhero who is kind and nice to everyone, especially to children. In the book series, he is the alter ego of the evil principal hypnotized to think he is Captain Underpants.

Apparently, some think this sends too unruly of a message to kids. The series has been banned in some schools for encouraging children to disobey authority.

Lisa Catherine Harper, an adjunct professor of writing in the University of San Francisco’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program and the author of the prize awarded A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood (2011), describes this week in The Huffington Post how she and her son read the books "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.


  1. Anne, thank you for the reminder that it's not WHAT our kids are reading, but that they're reading at all that's the point.  My mom has told me many times about the subscription to a car magazine my parents got for my brother when he was in high school, because he didn't like reading.  So many times we as parents focus so much on what we want our kids reading that we forget to make sure it's something they enjoy!

  2. Thanks, Catherine! And that's another good example about your brother. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anne,

    I LOVED reading Captain Underpants books with my kids. When I used to teach 6th grade, parents would express worry about their kids reading things like the Goosebumps series or "racy" young adult novels. My colleagues and I kept many "banned books" on our shelves for kids to read during free time.

    I've so enjoyed your work here and on Love, Sex & Family~
    Many thanks for the great reading,

  4. Thank you so much for saying that, Maria! That means a lot to me.

    And I *love* that you did all that!

    Thank you for reading; I really appreciate it and your kind words.


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