I can't remember not reading books. I still have a photograph of me from Kindergarten, pigtail braids and my overalls with the mushroom on the pocket, surrounded by books because I won the book reading contest at school.
My mom talks about how, in order to win the contest, I made every person who came into our house read to me and amassed more than 100 books on my list. Books have always been my escape, my place to learn about the world around me, my place to enter lands and make friends I would have forever. And, it was the libraries in my life where I was first introduced to many of the books which would change my life.
I can still picture my elementary school library. The Nancy Drews stood on the far right wall. Walking forward, I would find the picture books. Turning the corner I could find Harriet the Spy. Library day was an experience of wonder and excitement.
The closest public library to me growing up was magnificent. Built next to the South Saint Paul Stockyards in the 1920s, I felt like I was entering a mansion of books every time I went in. It was there, upstairs in the children and young adult sections, I met Judy Blume and Lois Duncan. It was there I was able to get my first copy of The Catcher in the Rye when I couldn’t get it at my school library.
My parents never censored my reading. They regularly brought me to the library and encouraged me to read. They let me check out any books I wanted. They encouraged in me a love for reading and the importance of libraries. Because my parents allowed me to read widely, I learned to read deeply.
This week marks the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week celebrates our freedom to read. It calls for us to end censorship and educate individuals about the importance of allowing all books to remain available for everyone to read. According to the ALA, there were at least 311 challenged or banned books in schools and libraries in the United States in 2014. They also estimate that 70 to 80 percent were never reported, which more than triples that amount.
This year Banned Books Week celebrates young adult literature. The beauty of young adult novels is the raw and real ways in which they address the lives of youth; how the characters pull us in and create connections. My favorite novel, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, introduced me to Holden Caulfield who has been called obscene, foul, and filthy. But for me, Salinger’s text was rich with image, drenched in it. He created a character I connected with in my soul. Young adult novels do this well. They cause you to feel in ways you never knew you could. They teach us through the lives of their characters; lives that many of us fondly remember.
Lives such as Katherine’s, who shares her experiences of love and sex and the complications of teenage relationships; or Margaret’s, who examines religion, bras, menstruation, puberty and coming of age. Both created by Judy Blume, they changed young adult fiction forever.
Or Sherman Alexie’s Junior, who shares his hopes and dreams of drawing comics and his skill at playing basketball, and in doing so makes us look at cycles of poverty, institutional racism, bullying, and finding friends.
Then there’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry, Ron, and Hermione who teach us the importance of friendship, fighting for what you believe in, and how magic really can change the world.
And, Veronica Roth’s Tris and Suzanne Collins’ Katniss, who are strong young women who teach us to fight against authority when that authority is unjust. And teach us how to mourn the loss of friendship, home, and loved ones.
Or Stephen Chbosky’s Charlie, with his letters and love of The Smiths, he teaches us that finding someone to share your deepest secrets with sometimes takes time, but it’s worth it.
And Harper Lee’s Scout whose courage and compassion changed the world. She teaches us to question the world in which we live in and shows us the role of fear in racism.
Or Dav Pilkey’s George and Harold, who teach us to laugh, what happens when you hypnotize your principal, and how to create humor in every situation.
I believe in allowing youth to read freely. I believe in talking with each other about books, discussing why books make us feel uncomfortable, and examining these feelings with others. I believe in allowing any book to be read in a school or found in a library and for people to be given the freedom to choose what they want to read and to not take that away from others.
I hope we live in a community where we can talk about why books make us uncomfortable instead of stopping others from reading them. Because it is our differences, and learning about those differences, that makes us more compassionate toward others. Books help do this in so many ways, it is important to let them be free and available for all.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.