Rethinking “Banned” Books Week

(Marie Lambert)– Yesterday marked the final day in the 30th Anniversary celebration of the American Library Association sponsored “Banned Books Week.” Held during the last week of September every year, Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read—specifically to read controversial books. The commemorative week was created in 1982 as a response to a rise in challenged books in libraries. A challenge is an attempt by an individual or group to remove or restrict access to a certain book, usually on grounds that the material it contains is inappropriate for the book’s designated age group.

Three hundred and sixty-two books were challenged throughout the country in 2011, the most frequently challenged of them being:

1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle.
Reasons: offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

2. The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa. 
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

3. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. 
 Reasons: anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence

4. My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad. Butler
Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. 
 Reasons: offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group

6. Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. 
Reasons: nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint

7. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. 
 Reasons: insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit

8. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones. 
 Reasons: nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit

9. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar. 
Reasons: drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit

10. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. 
Reasons: offensive language; racism

Books are challenged by a variety of people and for a variety of reasons, mostly parents due to sexually explicit content or offensive language, although topics such as drugs, the occult, LGBTQ themes/characters, and religious viewpoints often earn challenges as well. Frequent visitors to the challenged list include Harry Potter series, The Catcher in the Rye, Go Ask Alice, and Heather Has Two Mommies.

Other books with more insidious offenses include the “Captain Underpants” series (for encouraging “disrespect to authority,” “improper spelling,” and “poor nutrition), The Diary of Anne Frank (for being “too depressing,”) and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (for an environmentalist agenda).

As a proponent for a global literacy and an insatiable reader myself, I have always found the idea of someone policing what I or anyone else reads to be horrific. Reading is a way to experience a wide variety of new, foreign, and maybe even uncomfortable ideas. I believe that (in an ideal world) a well reasoned society should be able to engage in free and civil discussion of ideas, even those ideas we do not completely agree with. Questioning the world is not a bad thing but a way of learning about the world and oneself.

Of course, no one wants to be labeled a book “banner” or a proponent of censorship. Every year around the end of September the library in my high school was filled with bright posters proclaiming, “I’m with the banned!” featuring current celebrities posing with their supposedly favorite controversial book. Attractive displays were set up to advertise classic banned books, perhaps to entice apathetic readers to opening them because of their alluring “forbidden” nature.

The thing is, a book hasn’t been banned in the United States for decades. The ban on John Cleland’s erotic novel Fanny Hill was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1966 because it did not meet the court’s definition of obscenity. Since then, no book has actually been banned in the sense that there has been a government prohibition on its printing or sales. Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho may be deemed inappropriate for teenagers by a parent who requests that it be moved to the adult section (although I don’t know why it would be anywhere else), but you don’t have to be over 18 to check it out or buy it, like in Australia. Our concept of “banning” books is very different in America than throughout the rest of the world. The “challenges” described above are requests based on the discretion of individuals or organizations, not mandated by the government.

The American Library Association defines censorship as “a change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.” Censorship is an emotionally word with a lot of negative connotations. During Banned Books Week, it’s a word that’s thrown around a lot. Censors, book burning, references to Nazi Germany.  And even though by its own definition a parent who requests a book to be moved or removed would not be committing censorship (because an individual is not “a governing authority or its representatives”), such a person is still treated as though they are.

Honestly, even if a challenge is successful and a book is removed from a library or store, with the Internet it is very possible to access a prohibited text. A quick Google search of the controversial children’s book And Tango Makes Three led me to a video of someone reading the offending book aloud.

I’d prefer that parents talk to their children about material they find problematic rather than simply barring access to certain books, but I also don’t think that this supposed epidemic of banned books is as severe as the ALA portrays it. It seems that what could be an intelligent debate about how we exchange ideas has devolved into a battle of name-calling and propaganda.

But at the same time, it’s hard to reconcile these concerns with my commitment to our right to the freedom to read. Does anyone else have difficulty completely supporting Banned Books Week?