Often, today, ‘banned books’ are merely challenged books. Rarely, if ever, in today’s day and age, is a book prohibited and its readers or promoters penalised at a national level.
When they are, it does, in a convoluted, unfortunate way, make sense: it doesn’t matter if the book isn’t widely read, it’s very existence can cause political uproar and dissent that could turn violent, given the right pressure groups, the political environment and of course — what the government does or doesn’t do about it.
But then why on earth, one wonders, would someone want to ban a children’s book?
Unpopular opinion: I do believe that challenging children’s books at certain levels is an understandable and preferable move. It is true that children, being impressionable and vulnerable, deserve to be protected and leave the responsibility of determining age-appropriate content to the adults. Such parents are wary of leaving education regarding subjects such as puberty, gender roles, religious beliefs, bodily functions and emotional and hormonal changes in the hands of strangers. I do not think that their biases are misplaced — they’re parents. It’s their job to be wary of what information their children absorb — and from whom, particularly in these areas. And after the last time, biased content regarding race, ethnicity and gender roles in government-approved textbooks made the rounds on Pakistani social media, I’d argue it shouldn’t just be parents getting angry.
Given enough community backing, access to certain books can and has been challenged on local and regional levels. Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, co-written with Christina Lamb, made waves for all the wrong reasons when a private school in Pakistan refused to keep it in its library. Their argument was that the book didn’t read like something written by a teenager and was biased against both conservative Islam and Pakistan. Anne Frank’s Diary — which I’ve personally always considered the go-to entry-level book for insight into the horrors of day to day lives under the discriminatory rule of the Nazi Gestapo – was removed from school shelves in certain parts of the USA when communities argued it was too “depressing” for children at that reading level.
While I couldn’t find any indication that either has been banned or challenged in Pakistan — both Winnie the Pooh and Charlotte’s Web have been either banned or challenged by our so-called progressive, civilised counterparts of the free, western world for depicting “talking animals”. Celebrated author JK Rowling once lamented seeing a child made to sit in a corner during a group reading session because his parents didn’t want him exposed to positive depictions of witchcraft in Harry Potter. And let’s not forget: The Wizard of Oz was banned and removed from shelves in certain parts of the USA when conservative communities decided they didn’t like the fact that (among other things) it showed women in leadership roles.
While parents should take an interest in and monitor the content their children digest, I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t a foolproof method. Not all children comprehend at the same level of complexity — not even siblings. Not all parents have equal time or ability to monitor or understand the different sources of information available — even literary sources. In a country like Pakistan, where so many live below the poverty line, conservative and limiting gender roles are strictly enforced and the female education rate is still horrifically low (except in notable cases such as parts of Gilgit-Baltistan), expecting parents (especially mothers) to make sense of the plethora of options available is, in a word: wrong.
Also, it’s the 21st century. We’ve made personal, hand-held devices with access to the internet the new norm, even in the most economically challenged areas. How exactly, then, is parental approval (or disapproval) supposed to effectively curtail a quick google search and alternative, unregulated sources of information in this day and age?
To the parents who own smart-phones or tablets or smart tvs (in other words, the majority of the population), let me be very clear: banning books on reproductive health and getting teachers fired for talking about religious biases or introducing unfamiliar literature on the topics will not protect your child, if he/she has access to the internet.
There are videos depicting and celebrating gun violence and racially, sexually charged content, and your child has seen them.
There are young South Asian men physically abusing small animals — torturing them to death — implicitly and explicitly claiming these actions as revenge against “hurtful, dishonest, lying, liberal women” — all while being cheered on in the comments.
And your child has seen them.
Enforcing strict gender roles and limiting female movement won’t fix this. Cutting access to the internet or television time won’t fix this. Punishing your children won’t fix this (unless it’s for the animal abuse videos, in which case please get them some counselling). And removing or banning books will most definitely not fix this.
When faced with headlines of depraved, abusive activity and molestation of minors coming from Kasur and Okara, parents are right to be wary of who and what their children come in contact with. And yet, by denying children access to written content in a controlled, regulated, supervised environment (read: school and home), are we not denying both our children and ourselves the opportunity to learn how to navigate this increasingly strange, fast-paced, unfamiliar world that seems unable to wait for us to catch up? When faced with tragedies like the APS massacre, should we not be searching for — and in its absence — demanding the provision of, material that will help children and adults at varying reading levels come to terms with and limit if not eradicate the chances of being caught unaware in such circumstances ever again?
Yes, the Little House books are problematic because of racist undertones. But they’re also excellent examples of young, resourceful women working together to overcome poverty and challenging times. Likewise, Winnie the Pooh and Charlotte’s Web are excellent entry-level sources for young readers and their parents to familiarise themselves with mental health and the idea of death. In a time when we as a country need to be progressing towards raising well-rounded, capable citizens, denying the existence of certain animals feels like something that should really be very, very low on our priority list.
If communities can get together to remove books from shelves, I think we’re more than capable of collectively reviewing, producing and approving literature as well.
Given attention, time and yes, sometimes, alternative literary sources, most children can be brought up to similar levels of comprehension. As the oldest of four, from a family where recreational reading could actually get competitive, I can attest to that.
And if it’s the talking pigs you have a problem with — maybe crowd-fund (or challenge the government) to come up with a better alternative.