Monday, August 12, 2013

We Read Banned Books

It is no secret that I am obsessed with books. From literary fiction to narrative non-fiction, from vampires and wizards to Jane Austen (with or without zombies), I easily read two to three books a week. Like most voracious readers, I started very young and have fond memories of my first books. 

On a recent day off, I went to visit these old friends in an exhibit at the New York Public Library that was a celebration of young readers and the authors who write for them. Featuring nearly 250 artifacts and images, TheABCs of it: Why Children’s Books Matter, is a delightful romp through the worlds of Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Charlotte’s Webb, but it is much more than that as well.

While the narrative of the changing perceptions of childhood from Puritan New England to current day is fascinating, the part of the exhibition that was the most interesting to me was the section on banned or censored books called “Raising a Ruckus.” 

At the end of the display is a big tower that represents all the children’s books that have been banned from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. It was a powerful reminder of the dangers of censorship, and had a chilling effect, reminiscent of the memorial to the night of the book burning in Berlin in 1933. 

The exhibit highlights a few titles and why they were banned. One that stands out is an innocent book by Garth Williams about a white rabbit that marries a black rabbit. Taken literally, it was a scandal in 1950s segregated Alabama. 

Working at a Holocaust museum, I was especially interested in a panel about The Diary of Anne Frank, which included information about the unedited version of the diary. As many people know, Anne’s father, Otto, edited his daughter’s diary before publication to omit unflattering references to her family, and also some of her writings about her blooming sexuality. 

A newer, unedited version, which represents the diary as it was originally written, has caused controversy as recently as a few months ago when a mother in Michigan protested against her daughter reading the book because of the graphic language Anne used about exploring her body.   

Despite attempts to denounce Anne’s diary, and many children’s books from around the world, I’m grateful that these books still exist, unharmed and readily available in libraries, in homes, and in the fond memories of the children and adults who have been moved by them.

The exhibit will run through next March. 

Images from the exhibition including details of the tower of banned books and a recreation of the great, green room from Goodnight Moon.

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