Books, Essays

By Banning Books Do We Challenge Parental Rights?

For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to keep the conversation of challenging books, also called banning books, at my local level. I agree there are much larger discussions to be had on freedom of speech and parental rights, but I want this conversation to have a lighter tone, if possible. These are my personal thoughts as a parent of a third grader, and I don’t feel I’m at a level to discuss other recent incidents that have garnered national media attention regarding reading lists for high schoolers.

I’m a resident of Florida, and recently an article about a petition to remove books from Duval County’s third grade reading list caught my attention. Usually, as with this one, the articles I see are about books someone’s parental standards rank as inappropriate for children. I normally pass by these articles with the thought—let me decide what’s appropriate for my child. However, since this article dealt with books targeted to my child’s current reading level, I couldn’t help but pay attention.

banned books usa map via the Zinn Education project

Banned Books USA Map via the Zinn Education Project

Like many parents I know, I moderate the media consumed by my children. Trust me when I say “consumed” is the correct word. Thanks to technological advances becoming the norm, children nowadays can pay attention to several screens at one time. Therefore, I have to be vigilant in making sure my viewing while they are around, and their viewing while I’m not around, is appropriate. Music, books, comic books, television, and video games are approved by either me or my spouse. Again, like most parents, I live with the misguided assumption I can control all things related to my children.

Here’s the catch: what I consider inappropriate for my child may not be the same thing you consider inappropriate for your child. I understand my child’s level of maturity and guess what, that makes me the authority on all things her. If I goof up, I deal with the consequences. I also trust the school district to be just as, if not more, vigilant than I am about any questionable material being handed to my child at school.

According to the article, the two books in question, The Librarian of Basra: A  True Story from Iraq and Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, only received a total of about nine parent signatures on the final petition. The main complaint from those opposed to the books was the age-inappropriate content.

Without delving into the themes of these books (which are very important themes and worthy of discussion), what stood out most to me as a parent was the fact that nine parents, and many more who used social media, were trying to make a decision for all the parents whose children were required to read these books.

Do they have this right?

It brought me back to a situation that occurred with my child last year. She was required to do a report on George Washington Carver. She checked out a biographical book from her school library and we read it together at home. The book was written in 1978. The book used a racial slur in quotes to illustrate the types of discrimination Carver dealt with daily. I don’t allow racial slurs of any kind in my house (should be a given, right?), and I didn’t want my child to be introduced to this word by a book from her school library. Not because I don’t expect she’ll never be introduced to this word, or that I want to pretend this word doesn’t exist. It is because I understand the maturity level of my child. She has a mean word arsenal. When she gets angry she uses words like hate, stupid, jerk, and you can imagine the list goes on without even ramping up to curse words. I did not want to explain to my child about this slur, and the hate behind it because I did not want her to add it to her word choices. It would break my heart if she ever used this word against another human being. I am a realistic parent. Just because I say no doesn’t mean she won’t go behind my back. She’s a kid. Kids can be mean without completely understanding how they affect others and the possible long lasting effects of one word used even just one time.

I had a parent/teacher conference already scheduled, so I took the book with me and flagged the page. When I showed it to the teacher, I explained my concerns about having a book with the racial slur for her grade level. I told the teacher I did not want to have a conversation with my daughter about this word and asked if this was something she’d discuss with the students in class. She admitted while they did discuss racism and discrimination, she also did not feel comfortable with this word. The teacher then said she’d discuss it with the school librarian and I left feeling that I’d reached a favorable outcome. I trusted whatever final decision to be made belonged to the school.

But did I do the right thing? Did I make a decision for just my daughter or did I push for a decision for other people’s children too by challenging this book? I could have simply returned the book and checked out another biography on Carver at our local library, one that explained the discrimination but didn’t use the racial slur.

Or, how easily could it have turned into the same situation as with Duval County where I complained on Facebook and compelled other parents to join me in having this book removed completely?

It’s a thin line to jump back and forth over, and now I’m a little worried I don’t know where to stand.

At the end of the day, there are three things I feel comfortable standing behind. The first is alternative books to choose from if I deem a book inappropriate for my child. Second, some type of warning sent home that prepares me for difficult subjects explored in a book and possible use of language that can be considered age-inappropriate. Lastly, I have to be allowed to parent my child and not allow anyone to take those rights away from me.