I love to read. I taught myself to read before I had even started Kindergarten. For me, one of the best ways to stay resilient in the face of oppression and activist burnout is to lose myself in a rich narrative. Words have so much power to transform, to uplift, to politicize and to mobilize.
This week is the annual Banned Books Week, which is a national celebration of the freedom to read. Books around the country are banned from reasons ranging to celebrating gay characters to discussing the ‘occult.’ More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982.
On the list of books most frequently challenged over this decade are some of my absolutely favorite books. Topping the list is the Harry Potter series. I am a pretty avid fan of the Harry Potter books, not just for the fantasy and the characters but because it is inherently a story about social justice, friendship, self-confidence, and the long battle against oppression.
Also high on the list is And Tango Makes Three, one of the cutest and sweetest children’s picture stories I have ever read. It tells the story of an unconventional family of penguins. The reason it is so often banned? The penguin family has…. Shock! Gasp!… two fathers. So folks on the right feel that it ‘promotes gayness.’ But yes, you read correctly, the story is about an illustrated family of penguins. Furthermore, it was based on the real-life story of Roy and Silo, two male Chinstrap Penguins in the Central Park Zoo who bonded as mates and were given an egg to raise as a family.
This story is considered a threat to American children?
Let’s look at the flip side- a disturbing slew of youth who have committed suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying. Yesterday, a 13 year old Californian died after spending a week and a half on life support. Seth Walsh had weathered homophobic bullying for years without any intervention from his middle school. Last week, another 13-year old, Asher Brown, a gay teen in Houston, TX, took his own life after enduring what his mother and stepfather say was constant harassment and bullying. On September 9, 15-year-old a 15 year old, Billy Lucas, hung himself at his grandmother’s home. Friends of Lucas said that he had been tormented for years based on his perceived sexual orientation.
Now, let’s ask ourselves- is And Tango Makes Three really the threat, or could it be that homophobia, bullying and lack of support for youth are the real threats to the well-being of our young people?
When adults try and ban a book, they are basically asserting that they know what is best for young people. That children should be sheltered and shielded from certain themes and issues. Often those themes relate to queerness, sexuality, and identity. ANd that by limiting access to books, perhaps they can ban certain types of people and identities.
If every youth- no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, race or religion, had access to books where they saw themselves reflected and respected, could we shift the self-hatred and lack of confidence that plagues too many of our young people?
I encourage you to celebrate Banned Books Week as a memorial to all the lives lost in our country to bullying, harassment and prejudice. Do your own book club or read-a-thon to reclaim our right to choose our own reading material. Check out the list of banned books, pick one that speaks to you, and donate it to your local school or library in memory of Seth, Asher or Billy. Books are political and words have power. Let’s not let anyone take that away.