Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret got me into a lot of trouble. It was the summer of 1984, and I was at the library. I was always at the library in the summers because there weren’t things like streaming TV or the internet in the 1980s. No cell phones, either. I lived in a small Southern town not far from the Mississippi River, with dog-sized mosquitoes and air so hot and thick, it knocked you backwards when you stepped outside. The library was air-conditioned, and my mother wasn’t there. So that’s where I spent my summer vacation.
Our town library was really small and dark. I’m sure if I went back now, it would be even smaller than I remember. The fact that there were any copies of Judy Blume books at all is still a huge mystery to me. I guess it’s proof that even in that tiny little town, there were a few liberal-minded folks donating books.
I don’t remember what library section Are You There, God was in, but I found it one hot afternoon. I think I read half of it before I checked it out. I was amazed there was a book about a girl really talking to God, about everything. She talked to God about her period! My mother didn’t even talk to me about periods. But Margaret talked about periods with God! She talked to God about religions, about bras, even about not talking to him anymore. It was mind-blowing, which, in hindsight, is definitely why my mother didn’t want me reading it.
No Blume for you!
The librarian seemed fine with my selection, but my mother was not. As soon as she saw the cover, she marched me straight back to the library. She made me give the book back to the librarian, apologize to her for checking it out without my mother’s permission, and then she gave that poor country librarian a very loud piece of her mind.
From that day on, I was only allowed to be in the children’s section of the library. Not the young adult section. Not the nonfiction section. And definitely not the adult fiction section. For a while, the librarian watched me like a hawk. I guess I would have too if I had been publicly berated by a very angry, evangelical, small-town mother with pointy shoulder pads and sensible shoes. That old librarian would peer at me through the stacks, giving me her “Oh, no, you won’t” look over the top of her glasses. Obviously, not being allowed to do something and not doing the something are two different things. Sneaking into the off-limits sections of the library became my favorite game that summer.
My mother’s parental ban didn’t stop me from reading Judy Blume or 1,000 other authors she forbade, and neither did the librarian, despite her best efforts. Maybe not every kid is stubborn enough to work around information bans, but no one should ever have to fight for information.
Blume herself has observed, “I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.”
Bans can’t stop the quest to learn
Book bans do not stop people from reading. Book bans do not stop the evolution of human thought. They can make it harder for children in restrictive environments to learn. But the human mind will never stop seeking knowledge. We will always search for answers to the big questions – about religion, philosophy, diversity, identity, history, justice and politics.
George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In the same spirit, If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to read what they do not want you to read.
The freedom of ideas is under attack by religious extremists and their lawmaker allies more than ever. Over 1,500 unique titles were banned during the 2022-2023 school year – a 33% increase from the year before. It has never been more important to stand up for stories and our freedom to share and discuss them.
To quote Levar Burton, “Books bring us together. They teach us about the world and each other. The ability to read and access books is a fundamental right and a necessity for life-long success.”
Photo: The public library in Ashley County, Ark., where the author first discovered the works of Judy Blume.