The Power of Words

Words, much like experiences, are often quite memorable.  We can remember words that were said to us in anger, or in spite, many years after they were uttered.  As a teenager, I dated a boy who was abusive, in both his words and his actions.  He said things to me that I can still recall clearly today, twenty-five years later, as if it happened last week.  I put up with it, wanting out but not knowing how to accomplish that by myself, until one day I saw a poster in the high school counselor’s office that said something like, Ten Ways You Know You’re In An Abusive Relationship.  The words on that poster made me realize that my boyfriend’s behavior was not normal and that I needed to get out.  Those words empowered me to believe in my own instincts, get help from some adults, tell my friends, and move on.  However, the poster did not appear in my life until I had dated my boyfriend for three long years.  I often wonder how things would have been different if I had read those words before I met him, or if not those words, maybe a book with a teenage character who is dealing with dating abuse. What if a teacher or librarian had put a book like that in my hands?  Maybe I would never have put up with his behavior, or maybe I would have been able to leave the relationship sooner than I did.  It’s not an experience I necessarily regret, because it helped shape the person I am today, and it is certainly no one’s fault but the abuser’s that it happened. My point is that words do have power, spoken or written, and access to those words can be life-changing for some young people.

This week, the American Library Association announced the Top Ten Most Challenged Books for 2016.  Unsurprisingly, most of the books are written for young people.  The theme of this year’s Banned Books Week is Words Have Power.  People, especially parents, obviously know this is true – otherwise, they wouldn’t challenge young people’s books.  If you’d like to read more about this trend in “parenting,” check out James LaRue’s recent blog post here from the Office For Intellectual Freedom.  These parents fear that words will damage, change, or alter their children in some permanent way, perhaps in a way that is counterintuitive to the values they teach in their homes, and so they try to prevent their children from accessing those words.  What these parents don’t realize is that being changed by words, letting words shape young people as they grow and learn, is not a bad thing.   We all know that young people benefit from learning about the lives of people who are different from them, and people who are similar, even if those people are fictional.  Many of the books that made the list for 2016 have LGBTQ characters, and we need only look at the staggering suicide rates of gay and transgender teens to know that they would benefit from access to books that tell their stories; likewise, their bullies and oppressors would benefit from reading about LGBTQ experiences so their own worldview and empathy can expand to be more inclusive. One of the top ten challenged books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, contains a female character whose stepfather behaves inappropriately, even abusively, toward her and she finds it scary. What if the challenges to this book were successful?  What if a real, live teenager, one who was dealing with a similarly abusive situation, was denied access to this book?  A couple of years ago there was a case in Indiana where two girls came forward to report sexual abuse after reading the frequently challenged novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson as part of an English assignment.  Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen wrote an open letter that discusses that news story and thanks the people who give kids challenged books. Those two girls found the courage they needed to come forward and name their abuser because of what they read in a book – we just never know the impact a story can have on a child’s life.

Our kids won’t be hurt by the words in books.  The words that are spoken to them are far more damaging.  As a teacher, it is my greatest privilege to match a book to a child.  Because, somewhere, there is a teenage girl who feels trapped in an abusive dating relationship.  She may be shy and insecure like I was – easy prey.  I hope I notice that girl.  I hope I have the chance to put the right book in her hands, a chance to give her a story that shows a way out, a chance to let her be brave and ask for help.  I hope she, and all my students, always have unfettered access to the power of words. Their futures, their lives, may depend on it.