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Janie B. Cheaney: Keep out of reach of children


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Keep out of reach of children

Free speech is important, but it doesn’t require children to have access to books with graphic content

A Banned Books Week display is at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library. Associated Press/Photo by Ted Shaffrey

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, October 18th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Paul Butler.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney says free speech doesn’t mean libraries should stock the shelves with explicit books for children.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: When my brother-in-law was a small-town teenager, he tried to check out a copy of The African Queen at the local library. The librarian peered over her glasses at him and asked accusingly, “Philip, do your parents know you’re checking out this book?” That’s the way he told it, and I don’t remember if she let him walk out with The African Queen. I wonder now if she was a member of the American Library Association (also known as the ALA). If so, she would likely be shocked at the drift of that organization, just as many parents today are shocked at the kind of books the ALA considers suitable for middle-graders and teens.

Banned Books Week concluded October 7 this year. It’s the ALA’s annual campaign to shame anyone who “challenges” a library book or questions its appropriateness for their library. The cynical take is that Banned Books Week is a breast-beating exercise, and I admit to growing cynicism the last couple of years, as the organization obsesses over a rise in book challenges. Yes, free speech is important, but is democracy really in danger because graphic content is being removed from library shelves? For example, Gender Queer, which tops this year’s most-banned list, is the memoir of a biological woman’s quest for a nonbinary, asexual identity. But there’s plenty of sex along that journey, some of it in pictures.

The ALA has made so-called censorship an official cause since 1982, when Banned Books Week was instituted. The first list included Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century, The Grapes of Wrath—and for reasons I can’t imagine, The American Heritage Dictionary. But let’s get one important distinction out of the way right now: “banned” doesn’t always mean the book is unavailable. If the book is withdrawn for consideration, restricted based on parental permission, reshelved to the adult or teen section, or removed altogether, it is considered “banned.” Many book bans or challenges happen in school libraries; in those cases, readers determined enough to get a public library card can probably access the book.

This year’s Banned Books motto is “Let Freedom Read.” Apparently it’s “dangerous” to suggest that Lawn Boy, which includes graphic homosexual descriptions, or Fun Home, depicting the author’s journey to lesbian love, might not be appropriate for teens. According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, “Students are losing access to critical information, and librarians and teachers are under attack for doing their jobs.”

As for access to information, Caldwell-Stone is forgetting the internet. As for teachers and librarians doing their jobs, there’s a great deal of confusion about what that job is. Is it transmitting the wisdom of the ages, or promoting the latest from the left wing? Does “critical information” ever include books that challenge LGBTQ ideology—books like Irreversible Damage, which outlines the permanent harm to young girls who are sucked into the transgender craze?

I know many dedicated librarians who don’t buy into banned-books rhetoric. And I hear of overzealous activists who can’t separate the wheat from the tares–the thoughtful treatments of controversial subjects from literary trash. But let’s be clear about which side is pushing the envelope. It’s not the parents.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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