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.