Books Are Not Dangerous, But Companions for a Dangerous World

The American Library Association (ALA) recently released its State of America’s Libraries report for 2021. Unlike a corporate report from the same fiscal year that might take stock of their financial losses due to the ongoing pandemic and political turmoil, a library association offers a unique perspective on the year that was. According to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), the number of challenges to remove books from public and school libraries broke historic records, with a documented 729 challenges to 1,597 books.

As a high school English teacher, I know my students’ time is often far too divided to complete their reading homework—so saturated are their afternoons with sports practices and jobs and socializing. Thus, an abiding concern over children reading certain things, rather than concern for children reading not enough at all, has often baffled me.

Yet book banning is nothing new, nor are the popular methods for doing so (removal from shelves, removal from databases and even burning books is evidently still practiced). What’s more, the books that parents and other library patrons along with some political/religious groups targeted in 2021 are not all new arrivals either. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, considered the fifth most challenged book of 2021, is now 5 years old. Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was the ALA’s eighth most challenged book for its depiction of child sexual abuse. It was published in 1970. Almost all of the books were written for a young adult audience, however.

Author Judy Blume, whose fiction addressed sexuality, mostly from a female perspective, has long confronted the banning of her books, though largely on the heels of the election of former President Ronald Reagan. Blume said that she saw censorship not just as the parental reflex to shelter their children—but to protect themselves from being questioned.

Is it our human reflex to want to control what little we can control, chiefly the words on a page that might reach young minds, when all the world seems so aflame with controversy? Perhaps. But we also have a long tradition in the US of offering books as companions for young people as they navigate seasons of great pain and uncertainty. Consider three of the most popular books in the US in the 1940s, all three written for children, and one written by a child. All arrived to shelves on the heels or in the midst of World War II. The existence and embrace of these books shows how writers and readers alike found ways to process and heal from the ravages of the Holocaust and war.

In a November 1938 essay for Harpers, EB White lamented “this year of infinite terror” as a paradoxical time where “adults with blueprints of bombproof shelters sticking from their pants pockets solemnly caution their little ones against running downstairs with lollypops in their mouths.” In this same essay, White pondered the “important work” of writing books for children. Meanwhile, White was busy writing about a mannerly mouse, a manuscript for Stuart Little I completed in 1945.

Due to a political rift that seemed to begin with White’s acquisitions editor, librarians were encouraged to ban the book, but soon enough schoolchildren embraced the captivating tale of a tiny mouse setting out to conquer life in a big city, assured that they, too, need not fear the wide world and its uncertainties. Stuart Little has now reportedly sold more than 4 million copies.

Just as Stuart Little took on New York City, in 1943 the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry found himself in a similar spot. After he escaped Nazi-occupied France, Saint-Exupery was convalescing from an operation in a New York City hospital. Not unlike the political entrenchment in which we find ourselves at present, Saint-Exupéry felt disillusioned politically by the French community in exile, further magnifying his alienation from him.

A woman searches in a book store.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

According to a report from a friend visiting him post-surgery, Saint-Exupéry took solace in a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. These stories offered a comfort to Saint-Exupéry, for whom the nostalgia of childhood both enchanted and haunted him, and no doubt propelled him to finally publish the story of the eternally childish sprite from a remote asteroid. The Little Prince was first released in French, though Saint-Exupéry wrote the sentimental tale while in exile in the US Saint-Exupéry’s tiny child prince has reminded generations since to waste time taming their precious roses.

A major critique levied by the pilot narrator of The Little Prince is that “grown-ups love figures” and forget about “essential matters.” One cannot help but imagine the children of war hearing elders read aloud the numbers of the deployed and fallen while little hearts harbored fears unspoken. It is easy to see a parallel in our pandemic preoccupation with data, reading the surge numbers like tea leaves, unable to explain to our children what any of it really means.

A singular young voice that spoke—and still speaks—into the raw feelings of adolescence in crisis intimated in her diary in 1944 that, “The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate .” How grateful anyone who reads this young girl’s diary is that she was able to journal while the air was still in her lungs.

in his TIME100 tribute to Anne Frank, Roger Rosenblatt wrote, “In a way, the Holocaust began with one book and ended with another,” referring of course to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, whose antisemitism and anti-Communism fueled the Nazism that killed 6 million Jews, including Annelies Marie Frank whose diary far eclipsed Mein Kampfselling 30 million copies with translations in 70 different languages.

Where Hitler eventually dismissed Mein Kampf as his mere “fantasies behind bars,” Frank’s diary of life in her own captivity continues to release us from the pain of believing ourselves the only ones to “feel the suffering of millions,” and, in spite of this, to continue to hope that “everything will change for the better, that this cruelty, too, shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more,” as Frank wrote on July 15, 1944, less than a month before she and her family were discovered, arrested and impressed.

The stories that comfort and inspire us in times of widespread suffering need not have happy endings, but must offer us a particular truth. “This is my all time favorite book,” begins one parent review of Stuart Little on Common Sense Media, and continues, “However, the ending for some children can be wrenching. There’s no resolution. … The aloneness in the world and the searching for something that may never be found can be terribly sad for some children.” The world can break your heart; so can books. But books can also help to mend our brokenness, sometimes by diverting our attention from it, sometimes by speaking directly into the pain and sadness. Banning books that are truthful and helpful, even when they present a difficult reality, only shrouds these materials with forbiddenness that ultimately invites more curiosity among children.

Stuart Little drives off the final page of White’s novel peering ahead into “the great land that stretched before him” although “the way seemed long.” We are assured though, that to Stuart, “The sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.” Whatever books may arrive on shelves within our children’s reach, I hope they continue to point us all toward a true north.

Kendra Stanton Lee teaches high school English in Brookline, Mass. More of her writing can be found here.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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