Banning books is an injustice to children and to history

Written By Rachel Ross, Co-Opinions Editor

In my 8th-grade English class, one of our units was devoted to learning about the Holocaust. Over the course of the module, our teacher, who has gone on to become the Director of Education at the Holocaust Center for Humanity, taught us thoroughly and thoughtfully with a combination of books, movies, photos, maps and arranged for the life-altering opportunity for us to meet a Holocaust survivor.

Five years later, I still regard the unit as one of the most important and impactful experiences of my education. Recently, a school board in Tennessee banned one of the books that we read during this time, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.”

Banning books is not a new concept at all in the United States; it is something children in select schools across the country have been subject to for decades. It is an issue that gets thrown into the spotlight every few years; word gets out that a book with a controversial and/or difficult subject is getting banned, people express outrage … and then what happens? Not a whole lot. For as many headlines as there are about a book being banned, there are never as many for a banning being overturned. It seems like most of the time the school district that announced the ban takes the heat, waits for things to die down and then continues on as normal.

The victim this time around, “Maus,” is a graphic novel in which Spiegelman depicts himself interviewing his father about his experience in the Holocaust. The novel portrays all of its characters as different animals: all of the Jews are mice, while the Germans are cats. The reasoning that the school board provided for banning the book from the 8th grade curriculum was due to its use of profanity, nudity and depiction of violence and suicide. The board went on to clarify that they do not object to teaching children about the Holocaust, but rather the way in which it is done in the book, with the things they pointed out. One board member is quoted as saying, “We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history, and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.” That might just be the exact definition of an oxymoron.

The core of these book bannings, for the most part, is a debate between what is and isn’t suitable for children to be exposed to, although in certain situations, politics can come into question as well. The banner’s chosen argument usually falls into one of two categories: the first involves picking out petty details, as in this case. “The children can’t possibly be subject to a few words that they’ve most likely already heard their classmates say a thousand times over or see a drawing of a naked mouse in the interest of learning the realities of one of the most atrocious events in human history.” Then there’s the argument that actually cites the subject of the book, which often revolves around human rights issues, as being the problem. “No, no, no, it’s not appropriate for the children to learn about subjects with real-world implications that continue to make us feel uncomfortable in this controlled environment.”

Book banning is absolutely ludicrous, and it is completely baffling that we are still having to discuss it in 2022. Obviously, I am not an expert on how to raise children, but considering in the eyes of this country I was one less than a year ago (and personally see myself as being one still) I think I’m in touch enough to weigh in. One of the worst things you can do is shelter kids..

Of course, I am not advocating for the totally liberal extreme either; I am not shaking hands with the woman letting her kids ride the New York City subway alone at age 7 or anything like that. It is not fair to a kid to make them grow up too soon either. However, there reaches a point where the blindfold needs to come off, and they have to be told about the realities of the world they live in; 13 years old is plenty old enough.

The board member’s statement is so tone deaf that it is almost unbelievable that they meant it to be taken seriously. You want to tell the kids exactly what happened … except no you do not, because exactly what happened involves the things you just said you do not want them to see. They want to rob these 13-year-olds of a material that illustrates a vitally important lesson because of a few swear words and a naked mouse. These school boards that do this are dying on this hill and patting themselves on the back that they saved the children, meanwhile all they have really done is promote ignorance. No matter the argument, whether it is the petty details or the larger message overall, these banners want to claim that they are saving kids from an uncomfortable situation or content deemed inappropriate to discuss in school.

Where is it appropriate to discuss then? Isn’t school the place where you are supposed to be able to ask questions and learn about things in a safe, controlled environment? Would you prefer that kids discuss crude words and human anatomy behind the slide on the playground or after classes let out? Just because it is in a book you are presenting does not mean you are condoning anything.

And let’s cut to the chase here: kids know these words, ok? This isn’t to say have a free-for-all and let them say whatever they want to each other, but do not disregard an entire book because you are scared of kids discovering them. You are not giving them any new ideas, I promise you. And yes, it can be uncomfortable when you see a swear word at the bottom of the page on your turn to read, and you are not sure how to handle it. Or if the novel includes a derogatory term in the interest of expressing the discrimination faced by a particular group. But you should skip over it and continue on. People are not including these words in their writing just for kicks; they are including them because they are a very real part of that group’s struggle or history.

Then there is the point of discomfort. Just because something is uncomfortable does not mean it should be avoided. As you go on in life, that becomes less and less of an option. If kids do not know how to face facts that make them uncomfortable, they are not going to be equipped for situations they are presented with throughout their life.

Furthermore, ignoring things is how history gets forgotten. It is not supposed to be pleasant to read about tragedies: it is supposed to be informative. It is supposed to provide you with a glimpse into that time and the struggle for those who lived through it. It is indescribably heartbreaking to read the diary of a young girl with so many aspirations and beautiful thoughts about the world, many of which you can relate to and agree with, knowing she was killed before she had the chance to do most of the things she wanted to do, just because she was Jewish. It is unforgettably haunting to read about a man seeing himself in the mirror for the first time after surviving concentration camps and death marches and describing his likeness as that of a corpse. It is tragic and humbling to read about a woman who discovered a raspberry in a concentration camp and instead of keeping it for herself she gave it to her friend.

These are horrifying and deeply emotionally affecting realities, but they are realities nonetheless. These are real people, some of whom are thankfully still among us today, who had to experience these things. Disregarding their stories because they are difficult to read through or because they choose to express their sadness or anger or hopelessness with a few instances of foul language is indescribably disrespectful and dangerously ignorant. These accounts and the lessons they provide are what shape a person’s understanding of what compassion, love, struggle, sadness, empathy and hatred really are. That is not something you can make up for years later.

This understanding is something you have to find as you are growing up and coming into yourself; I would know. I have read these books, and they have not scarred me for life or ruined me, they have taught me what it means to be grateful for what I have, and why it is so important to stand against injustice. They have made me a more compassionate human being. These are lessons that are essential for living in this world, and it is downright unacceptable that some of these schools are trying to keep them from kids or water them down to the point that they barely mean anything.

These raw and brutally honest accounts are the things that stay with you and truly make you understand these horrifying events. The history is history; there is no changing it. If “graphic” is what it is, then that’s what it is.

You cannot just cut out the parts that do not fit your particular agenda or make you uncomfortable. Kids need to understand that.

Kids need to read these books.

Having been in the exact same position, reading “Maus” in 8-th grade at the age of 13, it saddens and concerns me deeply to think that the kids at this school will not have the opportunity to do the same. It isn’t fair to them. What they are being shielded from is so much bigger than this board is making it out to be. Failing to take the time to properly learn about not just the Holocaust, but the historical oppression of any group, is not only detrimental to an individual as they are growing up and trying to develop who they want to be, but is also disrespectful to the people who have suffered at the hands of injustice. They deserve to be heard, and the kids deserve the chance to hear them.