Books have a long standing battle with censorship, which is in keeping with their longevity as a form of entertainment. For centuries prior to the harnessing of radio waves, books had been available to the public, thanks in large part to the Gutenberg printing press. Books have also been a potent means of spreading ideas, which is why they were at the center of the battle over censorship for so long. At the heart of the issue is obscenity. Many governments have sought to codify what is obscene material, and each country today defines it a little differently. However, most books that are banned today are done so for ideological purposes, rather than because of obscenity.
For example, George Orwell was a profound critic of totalitarianism in all its forms, as well as a well respected author of the early twentieth century. His books were especially critical of tactics employed by the USSR. As such, they were banned by the USSR and other eastern bloc countries following World War II. Today however, books such as Animal Farm and 1984 are part of the reading curriculum for many public high school systems in the English speaking world. His books were not deemed obscene because they were works with no inherent value; they were deemed so because they espoused a message that ran counter to the vested interests of certain governments.
In the same way, the modern book The Da Vinci Code is considered by many religious groups to be obscene because they feel it takes a seditious stance towards religion. The book has even been banned in Lebanon because it was deemed offensive to Christianity. Western society has seen a gradual shift away from outright banning of books over the past century, but the West did coin the practice of book burning, which was used to destroy works (and sometimes the authors of said works) that a group felt were offensive or dangerous.
Today, the modern parent has less to fear from books than from other forms of entertainment, but as with any form of entertainment, there is the question of age appropriateness. The Harry Potter and Twilight series are two of the top selling storylines of the past twenty years, and they are both ostentatiously aimed towards youth. However, the series deal with themes that are at times not suitable for young children. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy did not achieve as much commercial success as the other two, but it received widespread literary acclaim and has become a focal point for age-appropriate criticism in literature. It too deals with themes that a young child may not be ready to tackle.
As with all forms of entertainment, it is up to you as a parent to decide what is appropriate for your child, and when it is appropriate. A fourth grader can get through the Harry Potter books on a reading level, but your child may not be ready for the adolescent’s struggle with ideas such as death, identity, and romance that the books describe. Twilight is a step further down the road of adolescent themes and deals with them more explicitly. Finally, His Dark Materials deals with religious ideas that some parents may not want their children to be exposed to at all. All of these stories are written at a level that a very young child can comprehend, but that doesn’t mean that your child is ready for them. As a parent, you should be the one making that decision.