Someday They Won’t Let You*

Let’s say you and your (grand)child are out shopping, and one of your stops is a bookshop. Let’s say you go in and invite your (grand)child to pick out a couple of books. What would you do if one of the books had more than one murder in it? And some references to adulterous affairs? And a character who’s a thief? And psychological blackmailing? Would you go ahead and buy the book?

I did. The book I’m referring to is Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, and I was delighted when my eleven-year-old granddaughter chose it (might I add, with no prompting from me!). Do I know about all that stuff in the book? Umm…yes. And I was still happy to get the book for her. I very much doubt that reading it will make her an adulterer, or a killer, or a psychological blackmailer, or a thief. After all, I read and write about murder all the time, and haven’t killed anyone. Not having access to the book, though, would limit her reading horizons. She may not like the book (although I certainly hope she does), but how can she learn what her reading tastes are, if her reading options are limited?

Do I think my granddaughter will understand everything in the book? Possibly not; she doesn’t know anything about bridge, and a game of bridge features heavily in the book. So does hat paint, and I’m not sure she’ll know what that is. But if reading Cards on the Table gets her curious, then she’ll learn things she didn’t know before. And that’s one of the beauties of choosing what one wants to read, rather than being forbidden to read certain things. A good book allows a person to experience things and visit places that might not be possible in real life. All of that possibility to learn, to travel vicariously, to think about new things, and to explore is put at grave risk when books are banned.

Learning from books, enjoying reading, and developing critical thinking skills start in childhood. If children aren’t free to explore a wide variety of books and choose the ones they want, it’s much harder for them to develop thinking skills. Reading a variety of books helps children to decide what they like and don’t like when it comes to books. It also challenges them and, in doing so, expands their thinking. If they aren’t free to choose, they can’t learn what their tastes are, or learn to think in different ways. To put it another way, banning books makes it much harder for young people to get to know that side of themselves, and limits their ability to think about their own thinking. And research shows that metacognition is a key part of cognitive development.

So, was Cards on the Table the only book my granddaughter chose? No. She chose an anime book, a graphic novel, and two others, none of which I’d read. They’re really not to my taste, but I didn’t try to dissuade her from reading them. Just because I don’t choose to read a book doesn’t mean she isn’t free to read it. After all, how many books have people you know read and enjoyed, but left you cold, or with no interest in even picking the book up? It’s happened to me. If children aren’t free to pursue their own tastes in reading, they aren’t as likely to develop into mature readers. Why? Because if one’s not free to read what one wants, reading becomes a chore rather than something to enjoy. Besides, there are important ideas in many different kinds of books, not just the books that are to one person’s taste. Banning books by removing books that are only to one group’s taste limits everyone from trying out new ideas and new ways of expressing themselves. In that sense, it’s a bit like food. Just because I don’t care for one or another sort of food doesn’t mean you have to dislike it.

So, was our trip to the bookshop successful? Oh, yes. My granddaughter was happy with the books she chose, mainly because she was the one who chose them. The shop had a wide variety of books available, so she had a lot of choices. She wasn’t limited to an ‘approved’ list of books, which made it a lot more fun for her to wander around and think about what she wanted. And I enjoyed the trip, too. I was free to encourage her to pick some things she’d enjoy, and we had a great time bonding over books – in public and in a normal tone of voice, not in a hurried whisper in case someone heard.

I wouldn’t want to live in a world where my granddaughter couldn’t freely explore ideas, places, and more through books she chooses. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where authors like me couldn’t freely explore ideas, places, and more through writing. But that’s what ends up happening when books are banned. Banning may seem to start innocently enough, but it doesn’t take long to have devastating consequences. This week in the US is Banned Books Week, when we’re all encouraged to take a stand against banning books and limiting the ideas people can explore. I’m determined to work for a world without book banning, where my granddaughter can always read what she wants, when she chooses. I invite you to do the same. It’s too important to ignore.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s 1984.


20 thoughts on “Someday They Won’t Let You*

  1. Agree, but the censorship of public and school library stock worries me even more, and the limitations on what younger readers might be able to access. I wasn’t limited in what books I was allowed to borrow between 77 and 87 (when I turned 18 in the summer, and everything had to be seen by public library staff members as anything to be borrowed would have to be taken to the issue desk. But there are lots of references to choice being restricted in the 20th century.

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    1. As I’m reading your comment, Elkiedee, I’m thinking of the societal factors that have made book banning/censorship more popular in the last few decades, or at least suggested more frequently. Is it societal change, a reaction to the various movements for everyone’s civil rights, or something more? It’s an interesting question.

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  2. Agree, but the censorship of public and school library stock worries me even more, and the limitations on what younger readers might be able to access. I wasn’t limited in what books I was allowed to borrow between 77 and 87 (when I turned 18 in the summer, and everything had to be seen by public library staff members as anything to be borrowed would have to be taken to the issue desk. But there are lots of references to choice being restricted in the 20th century too, even for adult users of the library. \

    The obscenity trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover being available in Penguin paperback form was in 1960, when Bowie was 13 (and before the name change). Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album, featuring 1984 and Big Brother as well as I think the title track, was in 1974 (young enough to remember his teen years!)

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    1. Censorship of public and school library stocks worries me, too, Elkiedee – very much. Like you, I wasn’t censored when I was growing up. I was allowed to read what I chose, and I’m very glad I was. In the last years, though, you’re right that there’s much more talk about censoring/banning books, and it’s a scary proposition. Banning books limits thinking and limits ideas, and that is a serious problem for any society.

      Thanks, too, for mentioning the link between Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Bowie’s work. That’s really interesting! And not surprising, when you consider how much of an advocate for books and reading he was.

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  3. Having been on the Melfort Public Library Board for over 40 years there have been very few requests to ban books. None were banned. I do find it awkward on when pre-teens should have access to certain non-fiction adult books. So far there are no formal restrictions. I must admit that if I was with a granddaughter in a bookstore in a few years and saw her, as a pre-teen, picking a book that was very explicit I might intervene and say she would have to discuss with her parents whether she could purchase such a book. I never had a problem with my sons. Jonathan read well beyond his age and certainly chose adult books but he was not interested in books that were explicit. For me there is a distinction for pre-teens between adult themes and explicit books.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Bill. Fortunately, my granddaughter didn’t choose explicit books. If she had, I might have felt awkward about it, and I can see how that could be uncomfortable. I see your point about the distinction between adult themes and explicit books; luckily that hasn’t been an issue. It’s good to hear that your board hasn’t banned/removed any books. That sort of request must be difficult, because people often feel quite strongly about the issue, and it can make for real tension.

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  4. I enjoyed seeing my son get into reading when he was young and of course feeing and encouraging him. My girls were never quite as interested in books as him. Nice memories to be reminded of, when reading your post.

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    1. It is a lot of fun, and a real bonding experience, to take kids to bookshops and libraries, Col. And I think it really does help them to explore the world. I’m glad you have some good memories of sharing books with your kids.

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  5. Excellent post, Margot. I suppose our experience over here in the UK is a little different, that said, as someone else has mentioned, there’s the famous case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I gather when it ceased to be banned the queues for it in bookshops was out the door and round the block! I remember as a teen (older, say 16 – 17) I developed a crush on Tony Curtis after seeing one of his older films. At that time he’d just made a film of The Boston Strangler so me being me, I bought the book with him on the cover, well pleased with my purchase. I read it and then it sat in my book cupboard for a bit. One day I got home from school to find it gone and on asking my mother said she wasn’t having a book on that kind of subject in the house. She was a single parent and not being the sort of girl to make a fuss I just accepted it. But I didn’t feel corrupted by it, the book had just taught me, a sheltered girl living in Cornwall, that the world was not as benign as I thought it was and I needed to be careful out there in the big wide world. There are very few books that don’t teach you ‘something’ and that is why I am *so* vehemently against censorship. I love that we’ve both had the wonderful experience of taking our granddaughters book shopping. There truly is nothing like it.. Mine is 22 now still an avid reader. Apologies for such a long rambling comment!

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    1. No need for apologies, Cath, and thanks for the kind words. I’m very happy that you had the experience, too, of taking your granddaughter to buy books. As you s ay, there’s nothing like it; it’s a bonding experience as well as the chance to introduce young people to the world of books and reading. What’s not to love? And, as you say, books teach you so much; it really is wrong on so many levels to ban them. As you found out, a book can teach you something without being a ‘corrupting influence.’ I’m sorry to hear the book got taken away from you, but at least you read it first! Your story about Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a reminder, too, that just because a book is banned doesn’t mean people won’t read it. I’ll bet plenty of people found ways to get copies, and then, when it did become available, people were eager to read it. It just shows, I think, that banning books doesn’t really work

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  6. I so agree Margot – I read plenty of books at a young age in which much was beyond me, but I got a lot from them and often returned to them later on. If you ban them you make them forbidden fruit and people are just more keen to read them. Plus it certainly does a lot for a person’s literacy and articulacy if they read ahead of themselves at a young age!

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    1. That’s how I feel, too, KBR, and research supports our views on this. Young people benefit so much cognitively and in other ways from having their worlds expanded, even if there are things they don’t understand the first time they read something. As you say, too, if you ban a book, people’s natural instinct is to want to read it, so that defeats the purpose anyway!

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  7. I agree with your thoughts here. I think I was reading Agatha Christie as a preteen, and no harm done at all. I know I was reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books at that age, because a friend of my mother told her that the books contained some bad language. My mother told me about that and I don’t remember my response, or if I had even noticed any of that, but I continued reading them. Any books I was reading at that age (and into my twenties) would have come from the library because we did not have money to spend on books, but I never had any comments from librarians on what I was taking out.

    Anyway, to this day I remember with pride that my mother allowed me to read what I wanted to read. And my husband and I continued that with our son.

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    1. I’m glad your reading wasn’t restricted, Tracy. I don’t think either of us suffered any harm from reading Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner novels. And as far as language goes, I don’t think I thought about that very much. It certainly didn’t affect my way of speaking. Like you, I got my share of books from the library, too (still do), and nobody censored my reading. I’m glad of that, too, and like you, I made the same decision about my daughter’s reading. I don’t censor my granddaughter’s reading, either. It limits people’s horizons if they’re not free to read what they choose.

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  8. A great topic Margot, and one you do justice to. I think we share the opinions on the ins and outs of this. Of course we should help children choose appropriate books – but they can choose their own from a young age. And Agatha Christie never did anyone any harm. And – thumbs down to books banning and censorship of that kind.

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    1. Thanks, Moira. You’re right about the balance between giving children the support they need, but at the same time, freeing them to make their own choices. And if one of those choices is Agatha Christie, what’s not to like? But banning and censorship does no good and a great, great deal of harm. Certainly it doesn’t teach children to love reading and decide what they want to read!

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