DON’T READ THIS, IT MIGHT UPSET YOU

 

For years now Tigger and I have attended a mother-daughter book club.  We both enjoy it, and even though we left Hoity-Toity Private School, where the book club originated, we plan to stay with it.

 

Admittedly, it’s more of a social event than a meaningful effort at literary discourse.  The girls play for an hour while the moms drink coffee and chat.  We all come together, have a superficial discussion about the book, and the girls begin shouting out their nominations for the next book.  A list is made, a vote is held, and we do it all again the next month, or two months if we’re all too busy. 

 

We have no particular criteria for book selection, though some suggestions are immediately nixed by the moms (teen vampire porn, aka Twilight, for example).  We don’t even focus on girl-centric books, as we did in the beginning, when the girls were in 4th grade.  Now they’re 6th graders, and we moms give them a lot of latitude in picking books.

 

At our last meeting, we chose The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as the next book.  It’s a short and rather lyrical book, oddly gentle considering the topic: the Holocaust.  A young boy named Bruno, the son of the Commandant of a place Bruno calls “Out With,” meets a young boy named Shmuel who lives on the other side of the barbed-wire fence.  The innocent and inexplicably naïve Bruno does not know why Shmuel and his family must stay behind the fence, but he talks to Shmuel through the wire every day.

 

As you might expect, the story doesn’t end happily.  However, the book is circumspect about everything and there is no graphic violence.  Indeed, it is so oblique an uninformed reader could easily miss the point.  And few teens or pre-teens will grasp the author’s paradoxical parting words: “Of course, all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.  Not in this day and age.”

 

That’s why it needs to be discussed.  At a mother-daughter book club, for example.

 

Unfortunately, one or more moms (I’m not sure which ones) thought the book was unsuitable—too powerful, too scary, too something—for their kids.  And though I put up a minor protest, when it comes down to it, it’s a social group and we don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable.  So we changed the book selection to Peter and the Starcatchers. 

 

I enjoyed Peter.  It’s a great adventure—fast paced and exciting.  And entirely unchallenging.  We will have a superficial discussion and move on to the next book.

 

Tell me, friends, where is the line between reasonable boundaries and censorship?

 

 

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26 thoughts on “DON’T READ THIS, IT MIGHT UPSET YOU

  1. For a minute there, I thought your Mommy and Me book club was discussing the Noam Chomsky book.  If all the girls in the club are as old as Tigger, and as smart, you really should have stayed with the first book.  They need to know that this happened, along with why, how and who, and that it most certainly CAN happen again.  It has, in fact, happened again.  Just not in the same place to the same people.  Holocaust classes are usually taught in schools with a sizable Jewish enrollment.  These aren’t the only children that  need to learn about it.  It should be taught everywhere, and books like The Boy In The Striped Pajamas should be discussed, and explained.  What good is accomplished if the point is completely lost on the kids?

  2. As a former middle school teacher and a reading specialist, I’ll just say that there are a lot of parents in the world who think their preteens are too young for anything, and that if it’s not a rainbows-and-skittles kind of story, it’s unsuitable. To me it’s not just a censorship issue–which in itself bothers me, especially with a real event like the Holocaust–it’s a way of creating an unrealistic bubble around kids. There’s a difference between “protecting” a child and presenting them with vision of a false universe, a move which I think impedes their growth and attempts to permanently infantilize them. It’s also why so many preteens hate reading: because they are never exposed to anything “real” or controversial, and because they are never allowed to fully choose what to read without someone else (teacher, parent, librarian) filtering it for them. I would have fought the change in selection. To me, reading about the Holocaust matters… not only to prevent it from happening again, but to teach tolerance and expose children to the realities of the world. (These books are not graphic, as you said.) I also think honoring kids’ reading choices matters. Reading the book would have created a teachable moment and good conversations. Not reading it sends absolutely the wrong messages about reading, about choice, about the Holocaust, you name it.

  3. Anytime you start your posts with ‘Don’t read….’…..I gotta read it. I think it all has to do with maturity level. Your daughter has probably been exposed to the social truth. You are such a pragmatic mom and I can see that happening. Hopefully, she is in a school where she is faced with different cultures and scenarios which go with these cultures. At which time, you’ll discuss them.

  4. In my opinion, what you described is not censorship, but bad parenting.  It would be censorship if they sought to keep *your* child from reading the book, by protesting it at the bookstore or burning it at the library.  Interestingly, we just discussed that very book in *my* book club, which is not made up of the most broad-minded, tolerant people in the world, and yet the consensus was that The Boy In the Striped Pajamas is imperative reading for eighth graders.  It’s a very powerful and moving book and everyone in the book club felt it would make more of an impact on boys than Anne Frank’s Diary, which apparently bores some boys to tears before they get the point.I read whatever I wanted growing up.  We didn’t have teen vampire porn then, but Judy Blume *had* written Wifey, which I read in 9th grade.  That was probably somewhat inappropriate, but I definitely learned a lot of helpful things.  I think if my parents had caught me reading a lot of romance they would have teased me or ridiculed me about it, and maybe discouraged me, but my mom is an English teacher and we have always had tons and tons of literature around.  They would never have prohibited me from reading something based on scary, provocative or unpleasant themes.Book club settings always require compromise when it comes to selections.  I read all kinds of crap I’d never bother to read on my own in the service of my three book clubs.  On the flip side, you learn a lot about the people in the club and you read things you wouldn’t otherwise read.

  5. I read that book last year.  You’re right, it is very sensitively written.  My take on all this is that if the reader is old enough to understand what is going on, then they are old enough to discuss it.  A lot of “classic” middle school literature deals with uncomfortable themes.  Would you group pass on To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies?  While they are at it they might like to skip over Are you there God it’s me Margaret?  Sorry, I guess this touched a raw nerve with me too.

  6. The issue perhaps should be discussed a bit further simply because the choices of books without controversy will make for a dull club. All controversial books will make for a stressful social experience. Shouldn’t there be balance? Isn’t all great art about ideas?  Sort of off topic but have you been reading about the GOP rallies lately where Palin gets the crowds so worked up they yell terrible things, give the finger at the mention of Obama and even in one case bring monkey dolls with an Obama sticker?  Might be time to introduce your kids to some history so they can be aware of how cultures slip into it. 

  7. Hmmm…..good question, one which I don’t really have an answer for. I became a bookworm at an early age so I pretty much read anything I could get my hands on, and I don’t think any of it did me harm.

  8. Where is the line between reasonable boundaries and censorship?  It is a very fuzzy line.  As you said, it’s a social group, and people fear making people uncomfortable, but also going against what is perceived to be the dominant feeling in the group and getting shunned.  So people censor themselves for fear of rejection.  I’m not familiar with that book, but your group would probably had a good discussion about it.  The irony is, these parents want to protect their children from reading about something that *actually happened* to other children the same age (and younger) than their own children. 

  9. I agree that this doesn’t sound like censorship.  They aren’t saying they don’t want you to read the book, but rather they want to keep their fluff group about the fluff.  If they start to tell you what you should or shouldn’t read, then it becomes censorship.  I do think it’s telling that they don’t want address the issues surrounding the holocaust.  I think it’s an important issue that kids fairly young can handle.  Life’s not always a box of kittens, sometimes it’s a boxcar full of relatives. Kids should know the horrors of the past and the truth about the Nazi’s and what hate can do before they ever have the chance to meet bigoted holocaust deniers.

  10. I think the distinction between reasonable boundaries and censorship takes place at the family level, where parents decide what material, and when, is okay with them. People clearly have differing ideas about how heavy it is neccessary to make our children’s lives while they are young.

  11. If it makes you feel any better, I can tell you that this book is required reading in several local school districts, even though it’s only recently come out.  I haven’t read it, but if it’s as subtle as you say, my guess is that the perceptive bunch will get it and the majority will not, as with so many lessons people ought to learn.  I do wish that there were easier ways for peers to recommend reading material to each other, since reading as a hobby is much maligned and further quashed by well-meaning teachers with antiquated methods that suck all the joy out of literature.  I wonder if there’s a social networking site focused on reading, just for kids.  If not, there ought to be.

  12. I was slightly miffed when TR told me that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas might be un-chosen for book club. I was slightly more miffed when a friend informed me that it had, indeed, been un-chosen. My opinion is that not only is it important for children to learn about the holocaust, but everyone in this book club is ready. A lot of us read The Diary of Anne Frank in 5th grade (I did) and really enjoyed, understood, and were informed by it. Now we’re in sixth, and we’ve rejected a book that is more delicate than that? I agree with wallaby75- people in our book club have, in fact, suggested Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and I don’t really think that anybody would have complained. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas may well have been one of the only good in-depth discussions we could have had. Peter and the Starcatchers is a fantastic book, but there isn’t that much to discuss.Just so you know, by the way, Twilight is not pornographic. I will elect not to comment on the sequels.~Tigger~

  13. I’m think this particular scenario is less censorship and more a function of parents being sensitive to the needs of their individual kids.  Sixth grade is a strange spot, developmentally and emotionally, with some kids still kids and others self-identifying as young adults.  What might be challenging and provocative for the more mature might be unnecessarily traumatic for the others.  And for most girls at this stage of the ballgame, I’d guess that the social piece of the book club is more important to their development than anything they actually read.  I mean, would you want to watch Schindler’s List at a slumber party?

  14. Challenging books are critical for young people! I was personally changed by the books I read when I was young. The fluff books were forgotten. It pisses me off when they deprive young people of the opportunity to learn the difficult concepts a little at a time through their youth. It does a disservice to the individual and the future of our society!!!

  15. I guess that’s for each parent to decide. . .Though I can see how you’d be bummed, b/c it sounds like the book would have been great for discussion.It’s interesting.  The cirriculum coordinator (my made-up title) for the homeschool group where I teach is really open to teaching things that could be considered controversial.  Starting with 4th and 5th grade, our historical time period this year is necessarily controversial.  We’re studying “the Modern Age.”  Several of my sweet, little 4th graders said a few weeks ago, “I don’t like talking about the Titanic.  It makes me sad.”  The rest of the 1900’s is full of war (not to mention the holocaust), so I’m curious to see how they do with it. . . Jumping back over to literature: our policy is to tell the parents, if there may be any questionable content in the books we read.  We are pretty open, that we teach from a particular perspective (Christian worldview).  We want folks to know what’s in there, and feel free to “censor” for their own kids, but there are plenty of books with rough content, that have valuable themes.  On a personal note, I remember a few years back, I read my oldest daughter the “Addy” book from the American Girl series (set at the tail end of slavery in America).  I had a great sense of sadness, realizing that she was old enough to know about some of the very ugly things in the world.  Because of my religious perspective, books that discuss things like slavery or the holocaust lead to discussions of human nature around here — the presence of sin and evil in the world. 

  16. I have to agree with Tigger – Twilight is not pornographic (in fact, quite the opposite!).  The sequels aren’t pornographic either and the sex is treated quite gently and tenderly, really, with no specifics.  I was shocked and entranced. (-:Maybe you should just read Diary of Ann Frank instead.  I thought Peter & the Starcatchers was pretty fluffy.  I think the original Peter Pan is a better read.Okay, no comments about the actual issues.

  17. I read whatevver I wanted when I was kid.  Still am an avid reader.  My kids have always been given the freedom to choose what they want to read, they are all avid readers.  What bugs me the most about this is that life is not all happy go lucky cutsie fairy tales.  If we just let our (collectively) kids read fairy taletype books  we should be ashamed of ourselves (collectively).  Great writers make a person think, they bring real events to life and make us feel.  Every child is different & granted not all children are ready for the same reading material at the same age but by avoiding certain books or types of books because they may make us feel uncomfortable what message is a parent giving to that child.@Tigger – written like a someone who has a true appreciation of literature. you are one smart cookie, a lot brighter in fact then some adults 3 times your age.

  18. What Gungaboy said. Meanwhile, you’re a good mama and a serious thinker and I seriously doubt that your children will be unaware, at the ages you deem appropriate, of what they need to know. Lisa

  19. Not to brag, but I’ve read worse, and SEEN worse books (The Time-Life series, I think?) when I was 4-5.  I’ve read books about the holocaust way before I “should’ve” been (when I was in 1st grade), and I think it depends on the child.  You know Tigger, and if reading the Holocaust book would hurt her (and I doubt that), then it was okay for the group to nix it.  But the best thing would’ve been to have TWO books to discuss, moving the girls into 2 groups, and doing it that way.  If anything, I’d have picked something like “Mein Kampf” (Don’t tell me you didn’t read that in the 4th grade!)  Yeah, I’m being facetious, but my parents pretty much let us read any damn thing we wanted, and we turned out fine.  Tigger sounds more mature than her years, thanks to y’all, so let her read “Striped Pajamas” anyway, then that could turn into a deeper discussion of the Holocaust, and how some of the Jews didn’t believe it was even coming, although all the signs were there.  You could talk about why Hitler chose Jews, Gypsies, gays (even though he had Goering–wasn’t he gay?–) as one of his top men until he killed him in (I think) 1934.Okay, I’ve talked enough, but I’m telling ya, screw that sissy mom.  She probably doesn’t even let her daughter watch “Family Guy.”

  20. Mein Kampf is unreadable. The man was semiliterate, and nobody edited the thing. I only managed to wade through a couple of chapters. It’s like reading a transcript of a speed freak on talk radio. Worse than Karl Marx, and his stuff is appalling.

  21. I was reading Stephen King at age 8 and although some stuff may have been too “grown up” for me, my Dad was always ready to answer my questions so censorship wasn’t that much of an issue in our household (ok, with the exception of pornographic stuff). Call it irresponsible, but we were allowed to read almost anything we wanted as long as it was educational and helped expand the mind. As for TV, we were given a long leash except for The Exorcist – apparently it was barred by the Catholic church at one point? – and because of the graphic and realistic nature of the movie my Dad wouldn’t let a chicken shite like me watch it. 

  22. I agree with jodisgeek.  Hitler’s stuff was unreadable and pretty insane.  Of course, who would have DARED to edit it?My father was extremely strict.  I was kept on a very short leash my entire childhood, but he always let me read anything I wanted.  His thinking was… if I understood it, then why not let me read it?  If not, then it would go right over my head, and what’s the harm?  I feel the same way.  When you consider the trash a kid is exposed to daily on tv, the internet, horribly violent games and rap music,   I can’t imagine any child being harmed or seriously disturbed by reading a book.  Even a book on the holocaust.

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