Originally published in 2014.
This is the week to read. No, wait, this is the week to read a comic. No, no, even better- this is the week to read a questionable comic. Simply, this is the week to read a banned comic book. 🙂
My favourite week of the year, Banned Books Week kicks off Sunday, September 21, and runs until the 27th. The purpose of the annual event is to celebrate literature of all kinds, and most importantly the freedom to read. Banned Books Week is a celebration because it showcases titles that have been challenged and restricted but have stayed on the shelves because of the tireless efforts of the literary community who pursue the promotion of freedom to read.
This year spotlights the too often disgraced genre of comics.
To say that I enjoy reading comic books is an understatement; I love them and read them voraciously. I advocate for their inclusion in classroom curricula, for community book clubs for youth and adults alike, and I encourage those who are foreign to the medium to pick one up and give it a try. But in my endless promotion of the genre I am faced with constant criticism from people who think comics are basic, juvenile, and simple-minded. If you are someone who believes likewise I urge you to educate yourself, for if you sit down with a copy of Persepolis, Maus, Saga, The Long Halloween or Essex County I sincerely believe you will change your perspective- at least you will if you are someone who likes to be challenged by literature and can handle a little unorthodoxy.
Comics are both literary art and graphic art. They extend far beyond the realm of superheroes and address social and moral dilemmas, history, war, love, friendship, and coming of age. Comics challenge the reader to read on multiple levels. Unlike an illustrated novel where the image captures a description of the narrative, the images in the comics are narrative themselves. They are as equally important as the text, often times more so. Learning to follow panels and paying attention to the intricacies of splash pages takes patience and practice. For some, reading a graphic novel can be as time consuming as reading one of full text because the subtleties and metaphors are often found in the drawings not in the words.
Seeing the story unfold before you is a powerful experience. The first time I read Maus, by Art Speigleman, I had to keep putting it down- this is very unlike me. Maus, the first and only pulitzer prize winning graphic novel, is the biographical account of the author’s parents enslavement at Auschwitz; the tale is anthropomorphic, with Jews represented as mice who are chased down and entrapped by Nazi cats. Each character is given a distinct voice, each nationality a biting commentary through artistic representation. It is haunting and honest and from the point of view of the author, it is true. This is not a book to devour in one sitting. Nor is it a read to take lightly. But it has been challenged for being too graphic and for the misrepresentation of ethnic groups. This is not a simple minded piece of literature. The reasons for its ban do not conform to the base outline of comic discrimination, and sadly this is the case for the majority of banned comics across North America. Persepolis, Pride of Baghdad, Fun Home, The Killing Joke, Sandman, and Maus have been challenged in schools and libraries, not because they are simple stories, but because they are complex and mature.
No one has the right to tell someone what they can or cannot read. Sure, parents can choose to monitor their child’s reading habits, but to take that monitoring a step further and to protest the inclusion of a book on the shelves of a school or a library is violating someone else’s right to engage with literature. As a parent I understand wanting to protect children from potential harm, but it is our duty as parents to ensure children learn how to interpret the information before them and address how this information affects them. Reading is the gateway to knowledge. When we allow books, of any kind, to be banned we limit knowledge. My role as a mother is to encourage a love of learning in my children. If they are exposed to something that may seem questionable to me, them, or society at large it is my duty to discuss the reading experience. Not to limit it, pretend it did not exist, or prevent the experience in others.
Banning books is taking away choice. As adults and role models we should promote choice. It is our duty to guide our children through this world, to teach them that sex, profanity, violence and different points of view exist. If we try to keep them from learning about these things, we are putting them at risk and worst of all, not giving them the opportunity to discuss and to feel safe to ask questions. Books often provide answers, but most always prompt critical thinking. Even the most basic stories have the potential to cultivate thought. I am reminded of the sophisticated artistic devices in Maurice Sendak’s wonderful children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Max, who was naughty and sent to bed without supper, dreams of a wild world of fantastic beasts where he can escape the confines of reality and revel in fantasy. This classic has been frequently challenged for being too scary- but it need not be scary at all. Instead, why not marvel at the wonders and endless possibilities of imagination? Kids can be encouraged to think critically. In fact, without knowing it most do. Why cannot many adults?
At the end of the day your kids are going to learn about sex, they will fill their vocabulary (even just in thought) with profanity, they will be overwhelmed by different religions and ways of thinking. One day kids will learn that The Joker is a murdering lunatic, that sex is everywhere and death can be devastating. The more we try to censor our children from the realities of the world in their youth the less we prepare them for adulthood. Instead of banning literature, we should be exploring it and having conversations about it, all the while enlightening ourselves and them with the myriad of ideas that exist in this world.
Banned Books Week starts today, and as always, I am clearing my schedule to delve into the pages of “questionable” book. I wonder what I will learn this time?
Written by Leigha Chiasson-Locke