24 September, 2022

“Sweet Children” and Trust

I remember when I first received my first Harlequin book. I was 13 years old. I don’t I-Read-Banned-Booksremember anything about the book other than it’s olive green cover, but what I do remember is the reason why my mother gave me the book and the feeling has stayed with me since.

We were leaving our local Safeway supermarket and I was slumped in the passenger seat as all teenagers are wont to do. She plopped the shiny paperback on my lap and said, “Here, I got this for you.” I picked it up, holding it gently in my fingertips. I knew what type of book it was. I knew it was a step up from the Sweet Valley High books I had been reading.

I couldn’t form words and just looked at my mom with glassy eyes. I think my mouth may have dropped open.

“I think you’re mature enough to handle it,” she said. “You’re intelligent to know it’s just a book and not be influenced by it. I trust you.”

And with that sentence, I became forever grateful to my mother for seeing me as the reader that I was. My mom was very aware of my reading habits and knew the wide variety of literature I loved to get lost in (I read Handmaid’s Tale at 12) and knew that because she had done her job well she could trust me with a type of book reserved for adults. The key word there is TRUST.

That same word is what also got me angry upon reading that Rainbow Rowell was banned from speaking in Minnesota about her book Eleanor and Park. Rowell was banned because a few parents had issues with some of the language in the book and didn’t want their “sweet children” seeing those words. Sweet children? I work with teenagers, have for 10 years, and I wouldn’t call them sweet. They are moody, goofy, crazy yet they have a lot of questions, are open-minded, learning to express themselves, but most of all want someone to listen, someone to TRUST them.

When books are banned because some well-meaning adult doesn’t want their “sweet children” to read them, those well-meaning adults are effectively telling their children that they don’t trust them. And that makes me angry. Can we trust teenagers all the time? No, but on some things, such as allowing them to choose the type of books they read, we need to. Teenagers are trying to make sense of their world and one of the ways they do that is through books. Teenagers use the stories, the characters, to experience different lives, learn the consequences of bad (and good) decisions, to experience love, to experience being disabled, to experience being gay, to experience being a different race. They use those experiences to connect with other teens who may have felt the same way at some point in time. When we ban books, we take this choice, this ability for teens to learn how to make adult decisions, away from them.

It’s been years since I was that 13 year old girl, and I still get the warm fuzzies when I reflect on the moment my mother gave me that book. I see those same feelings in my students when I say, “Here, I think you might like this book,” and then proceed to hand them a banned book (that I didn’t realize was banned. Sherman Alexie’s Part-Time Indian was my most recent). Or when I allow them to read a play, like Romeo & Juliet (who bans Shakespeare?!), and the student are able to connect to it, discuss the issues. Eighth grade students are all about learning how to navigate romantic relationships and my students just love dissecting the play. I’m sure if I had my student’s read Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (also recently banned), they would have no problem talking about and sharing their experiences with bullying or how to help end bullying.

If parents want to have well-rounded, intelligent, mature children, then limiting what they read is only hurting them. Teens know what type of books they want to read and what they don’t want to read. Teens know what they can handle and what they can’t handle. We just have to trust that they will make the right decision, and when we give them that trust, they will.