When I moved to Charleston in 1999, I learned that my son's elementary school library was not ordering the Harry Potter books. Not because the librarian thought they were bad, but because she feared parent complaints. You know, Christians worried about making witches look like heroes, and the evil of magic.
Charleston County Public Library, then one of the best libraries I have ever encountered, happily filled the need. In time, as more and more children absorbed the wonderful series, the Harry Potter controversy dissolved. And the juvenile and young adult books the library has since made available to our children I believe continues to be among the best collection in the country.
More incredibly, just over a year ago, South Carolina lawmakers threatened to cut funding for the College of Charleston because the book Fun Home by Alison Bechdel had been on the freshman reading list. The book deals with issues of gay identity in the context of family conflict. It was horrifying to imagine that our legislators would attempt to censor college reading based on their homophobia. But it happened.
Last week was Banned Books Week, and my branch at Johns Island had a wonderful display to remind us, once again, of the astonishing poor judgment that has caused communities over the years to ban some of our best books. And to recognize once again, those amazing books.
On the bottom shelf of that display was a stack of books. The accompanying sign welcomed patrons to take one. Never one to resist that kind of bargain where books are concerned, I picked up a copy and flipped through it. There was an insert from the author explaining why the book was being given away. During the summer, a parent had complained to West Ashley High School's principal that this book was on the Honors required reading list (actually a choice between this and another) and was not appropriate and should be pulled off the reading list.
Instead of following the process in place in the school district, this principal decided to pull the book from the reading list. Charleston County Public Library and others then agreed to distribute copies of this book so that any young adult that wishes can read it.
As a parent of two now adult former honors students, it horrifies me when any kind of information is blocked. The purpose of education is not merely to provide facts, but to pose questions. In my home any book could be read, any movie could be watched (which at times got uncomfortable), and both kids knew that we could talk about anything therein. If our schools are not up to teaching honors students (or any student) critical thinking, we are failing them. Parents who judge material unfit always have the option of not allowing their own child to participate, and I know that teachers and administrators are more than cooperative in this regard. But to deny others access to material based on one's own comfort level is wrong and should under no circumstances be courted by school administrators.
The same blocking of information is now going on in the Charleston County School District regarding the new law that would require sexual education to be accurate and up-to-date. Really??? There are people who work in education, serve on school boards and are raising children who do not want sex ed to be accurate? Yes, and they are working hard to prevent that information from going out to any students in Charleston County.
But back to books. The one that has been banned from West Ashley High School is by Courtney Summers and it is entitled What Goes Around and is actually two books in one. The author has received awards and rave reviews for a number of young adult books. Her writing is honest, the problems are complex, and if you are looking for pat, polite answers, you aren't going to find them here. It is a wonderful opportunity for young adults to explore the complex and often very adult problems that exist in their world.
Again, it is chilling to imagine that one parent who does not want her teen reading about gritty, real-life problems can prevent all others in a school from having access to that material.
I am proud that Charleston County Library has stepped up to fill that void, and in so doing, make us all aware that important books continue to be banned in a country that was built on freedom of speech, openness to ideas, and the ability to engage in critical thinking rather than hide from unpleasant realities.
I also hope that parents made aware of this poor decision will speak up. Charleston County School District has a process for reviewing parent complaints (as does the library). The freedom to read and explore controversial topics is essential, and decisions to censor any book should never, ever be made lightly.
Thanks, Charleston County Library, for stepping up.