I celebrated Banned Books Week (this week!) by reading Not in Front of the Children, by Marjorie Heins. It's a really fascinating book that looks at legal policy — in the United States and around the world — that has to do with censorship, and the relationship between laws and opinions people have about banning books, and the laws and opinions people have about children.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the thesis that children don't really need to be protected from things. Well, okay — children should probably be protected from things like rabid attacking bears, but they don't need to be protected in the same way from ideas.
So — when we think about books for kids, we think, 'well, a four year-old probably shouldn't be reading Alan Moore's Lost Girls.' And this book doesn't debate that a four year-old's ability to comprehend and intellectually interact with a book like that is very limited. But what it does say is that no one has ever done a study and found that it causes permanent harm for children (even four year-olds!) to come into contact with words and pictures that they don't understand, that might be scary, and that are meant for an older audience.
Because what that experience does is prepare kids for being adults — if they come into contact with things that suggest that violence and sex (and everything else that people want to ban) exist, and are part of adult life, they become better prepared to encounter again these things in the coming years. And they are also better prepared to deal with other things they don't understand — and that might be scary and difficult — next time they come around.