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September 27, 2010

Don't like a book? Ban it!

...And you guarantee that it will sell ten times as many copies as it would have otherwise.

In Fall 2011, First Second will publish Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill. It's a graphic novel about Neil Barton, a teen in a small town in Oklahoma, who finds himself up against members of the community who want to ban the wildly popular fantasy series Apathea Ravenchilde from the local library. Americus is being serialized online (updated 3 times per week) at Save Apathea, leading up to publication next year. You should read it: it's awesome.


Please ban this book.

Can I tell you a secret? I'm kind of hoping that someone decides to ban Americus when it comes out in print. Why? Because then everyone will read it!

This is one of the reasons banning books just doesn't work very well (at least not in this country). It tends to attract attention to the book being banned. And that's sort of the opposite effect of what's intended! But just because banning a book is a pretty terrible way to suppress an idea doesn't make it a harmless, laughable pasttime. The suppression of ideas (ineffectively or not) is not something to ignore.

Book banning is bad.

I think most of the folks reading this post will agree with that statement (and not just because it's pleasingly alliterative). But it's worth unpacking it a bit. Why is book banning bad?

  • It involves one section of society imposing their tastes and values on everyone else, specifically through the suppression of free expression and free exchange of ideas. 


  • It's predicated on the idea that objectionable ideas go away or lose their power if you suppress the public expression of those ideas. Not only is this not the case (kids are going to figure out that sex exists pretty much no matter what you do), but you run the risk of obscuring reliable facts in favor of unsupressable wild speculation. Misinformation about the concepts being censored (sex, drug use, atheism,etc) gains momentum when the real story isn't available. Kids! Can't find a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves? Don't sweat it! My cousin told me you can't get pregnant if you take a shower after sex. But some girl on the playground told me you can get AIDS by smoking pot. 


  • It involves the misguided concept that it's safer to ignore a scary or repugnant idea than to confront it, talk about it, contest it, even defray it. Generally, the best thing you can do to imbue an idea with inescapable power and fascination is to make it taboo.


  • It's ultimately self-defeating. Children are not stupid, by and large. And they aren't as fragile as we think they are when we hasten to protect them from exposure to ideas we think will warp their little minds. They can take it! And they should. Would you rather have a child come around to the "right" position on an issue because they've been bullied and deceived into it? Or because they've got all the facts and they've thought it through and made a decision freely and based on what they believe to be right? Which of these conversions is likely to be the one that sticks?

None of these ideas are all that unusual.

I'm certainly not the first person to voice any of them. But there's something else that I think is worth examining, something that maybe doesn't get all the real estate it should in this conversation: there is this impulse to villify people who advocate for banning certain children's books. They're ignorant and reactionary, we tell each other. They're religious nut-jobs. They're assholes.

No. They're just people.

Not everyone who wants to see a book banned is a bad person.

In fact, most of them are probably good people, at least as much as any of us can be said to be "good." I would say they're misguided, even destructive. But they're not terrible human beings--they're just human beings with a terrible idea. The thing is, a lot of people come to this idea from a place of sincere concern. Their intentions are good, even if the conclusion they draw is not. They want to protect their children. They want to be good parents. They want to shape their world in a positive way. It's just that some of us strongly believe they're going about it all wrong.

This is why our aim should be to persuade, not to alienate. One of the things I love about Americus is that in addition to being hilarious and true and a great story, it's also a terrific piece of persuasive writing. It makes a very strong argument in favor of the open expression of ideas, and it presents a heartbreaking picture of what happens to families when that openness is shut down--when certain books are forbidden and certain subjects are avoided at all costs. It's not a pretty picture...but it's a powerful one.

Americus presents an idea worth sharing. And that's why I hope it gets banned as widely as possible.

Banned Books Week is September 25th to October 2nd, 2010.


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You make some really good points, and you've gotten me interested in reading "Americus". I just read through all of the posted pages last night.

However, where I have to differ with you is that, while I find "Americus" to be an interesting story, I have yet to see anything resembling a convincing argument against book-banning. So far "Americus" has felt like personal anecdote, which does not an argument make. The only representative we've seen for the pro-banning side in this story is an unreasoning, borderline child-abusing ogre (Danny's Mom). Until we see a sympathetic character representing the opposing argument and making some reasoned points that may cause the reader to stop and consider their position, "Americus" is only preaching to the choir and encouraging fantasy fandom to despise Christians. I'm not by any means suggesting it's a poorly-written story, but if it's going to accomplish what you're suggesting it does, it's going to need to move beyond caricatures and strawmen.

I'm a born-again, Bible-thumping conservative fundamentalist Christian, and I *love* fantasy. I lived through the D&D-Satanism moral panic in the 80s, and have always been a defender of fantasy to my fellow Christians who have opposed it (and I'm by no means alone in this). I also know that people can arrive at the idea of book-banning through a reasoned decision. I think it's mistaken and wrong, but I can see how someone could come to the conclusion that it would be a beneficial thing to do.

So the subject of "Americus" is one that's near to my heart. I'm sticking with the comic because I want to see how things turn out (and I find it entertaining, of course), but I'm really hoping it's going to do more than just decry Middle America and Christians as the fount of all ignorance and hatred.

I glanced over some sample pages. When do I find out what on earth would make this book ban-worthy?

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