Free Range Reading
Last week was National Banned Book Week, when the American Library Association basically celebrates the books that people have tried (with varying degrees of success) to get banned from either local or school libraries. The whole idea is, in a nutshell, to poke fun of those who try to ban books, especially classics, and to promote literature and reading in general.
In the back of my mind, I’ve been trying to connect the idea of Banned Book Week to the Free-range kids movement, to the consternation of my conscious self. The ideas aren’t so dissimilar, but I couldn’t quite figure out what my brain was trying to tell me.
Of course, last week was a horrible, stressful time. I think I’ve got it figured out now.
So, here’s the thing; I’m a reader. I’ve been a reader ever since I was four years old. I consider myself lucky—my parent’s are both readers, and Mom was a school teacher growing up. There were always books in the house, and there was nothing quite as exciting as a trip to the bookmobile or the library, or when we took the Scholastic catalogs home.
Mom told me a story the other day; she ran into a woman who taught the first dance classes that Sis and I took, more than twenty years ago, now. She remembered Mom had two daughters, and asked about us, even if she couldn’t remember our names, she knew that one of us (Sis) could dance, and the other one (me) always had her nose in a book. Talking to my elementary school teachers, this was my defining characteristic. I loved (and still do) to read.
The time came, eventually when my parents grew concerned with my reading—but not so much what I was reading, but how much I was reading. I’d spend recesses in the library with a novel rather than going out and running around and interacting with other people. I never had a book taken away from me because it wasn’t “age appropriate” or contained foul language or violence or sex or any of the other excuses that people use when they’re complaining about books. That’s not to say my parents had no influence over what I read, but it was more in the vein of putting good books in my hands, rather than taking bad books out.
Now, here’s the thing. Even though I never had anyone tell me what was appropriate to read, I figured it out on my own. I’d read enough that I could tell what was good and what was bad. For instance, I remember, when I was in middle school, I briefly developed an obsession with a series of cheesy romance novels set against various historic backgrounds. They all followed the same basic plot of a love triangle—terribly romantic when you’re 12, until you realize you can tell who the heroine is going to end up with by the illustrations on the front cover.I remember taking books back to the library unfinished because I knew I shouldn’t be reading them. My parents taught me right from wrong—and then let me act according to what I’d been taught. Insanity, I know.
I don’t know how old I was when I read books like “Fahrenheit 451”, or “To Kill a Mockingbird”, or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for the first time—but I know for all three books I was younger than the intended audience. Crazy thing—jumping into these worlds that explore difficult and painful topics didn’t scar me for life, instead, they helped me understand these difficult topics, and why I should care about them. To put it another way—reading books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn” taught me more about why racism is wrong than—well, pretty much anything else until the day my sister adopted an African-American child. What would I have missed out on if my parents or teachers had freaked out because I was reading a book that used the “n” word repeatedly?
The whole idea behind the Free-range kids movement is that kids grow up eventually. And, in order to be responsible, capable adults, kids need to learn to do things, figure things out, and think for themselves. When kids are coddled, or prevented from any sort of failure, or told how or what to think, how can they manage to become well-rounded adults? We learn from experience, and just like denying kids the experience of making friends and interacting with strangers and failing will inevitably lead to stunted adults, so too, I think, by denying kids the opportunity to decide for themselves the difference between a good book and a bad book only leads kids to stop reading.