Banned Books Week celebrates fight for intellectual freedom

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Librarians, teachers and booksellers across the country will celebrate the right to read during the 28th annual Banned Books Week Sept. 26-30. Each year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores make efforts to educate Americans about the ongoing fight against censorship in schools and libraries nationwide.

The event began after the American Library Association displayed banned books in cages at the 1982 American Booksellers Association trade show, generating great interest among the public and press and prompting ALA to develop a yearly educational event dedicated to combating book censorship.

That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that students’ First Amendment rights were “directly and sharply implicated” when a book is removed from a school library. In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School Dist. v. Pico (1982), the Court decided that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

Tracking book challenges
The ALA counts challenges to books nationwide. In 2008 it recorded 517 challenges, up from 420 in 2007. Most challenges are unsuccessful.

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom also compiles a list of the top 10 most frequently challenged books in schools and public libraries each year. For the past three years, the most challenged book in the United States has been And Tango Makes Three, an award-winning children’s book based on a true story about two male penguins raising a baby penguin.
“If there has been any change in the last decade or so,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, acting director of the intellectual-freedom office, “it’s the rising number of challenges to books that have gay scenes or gay-positive scenes in them, like the book And Tango Makes Three.

The ALA’s 10 Most Challenged Books of 2008 and the reasons for the challenges:

  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group.
  2. His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, violence.
  3. TTYL; TTFN; L8R; G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle. Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  4. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz. Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, violence.
  5. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, violence.
  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group.
  7. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar. Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  8. Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen. Reasons: homosexuality, unsuited to age group.
  9. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  10. Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper. Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.

According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the top three reasons for challenging materials from 2001 to 2008 involved sexual explicitness, offensive language and unsuitability for an age group. Other reasons include racist material, violence, anti-family attitudes, religious viewpoints or homosexuality. (See ALA chart for a percentage breakdown of reasons for book challenges and other statistics.)

The Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles book-censorship reports in its bimonthly Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom and yearly Banned Books Resource Guide. The ALA does not claim that its challenged-books list is comprehensive, as the organization estimates that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. The ALA says it tries to track any threat to remove a book from library shelves or restrict access to it, no matter whether the challenge resulted in a ban or the book remained available. Its detailed reports follow up on whether challenges became bans. The office also tracks challenges to books being taught in curricula, Caldwell-Stone said.

For example, she said, a citizens’ group in Howell, Mich., filed a challenge to Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye with the school district because the novel was assigned in the advanced-placement English curriculum.

The 2009 compilation will be released next March or April and will include book challenges and bans from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2009.

Efforts to ban classics
According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, at least 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been the targets of ban attempts over the years.

Caldwell-Stone said such censorship of classic novels was symptomatic of the fact that “all good literature challenges society.” The classics that remain at the top of ALA’s challenge list are “books that always challenge the status quo. Books like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath still hold a mirror up to our society and some don’t like what they see,” she said.

Challenges to To Kill a Mockingbird particularly hit close to home for Caldwell-Stone. As an advanced reader at age 8, Caldwell-Stone picked up her mother’s paperback edition of Harper Lee’s novel. “Even as a child it spoke to me about the need for treating every human being as a human being … . I can’t see how reading this novel would ever cause harm to an individual, and it just astounds me that challenges are brought to this book based on a belief that it reflects racial prejudice when in fact it’s one of the great anti-racist pleas in our literature that we have today in America.”

Parents top list of challengers
The Office for Intellectual Freedom says parents challenge books and other materials more often than any other group. From 2001 to 2008, 51% of challenges were made by parents, 10% by patrons and 8% by school and public-library administrators. Other challengers include teachers, “pressure groups,” clergy and government.

Terri Burke, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has also been active against book censorship, said that although parents make up the largest group of book challengers, they may actually be part of the solution.

“The more attention we draw to this, the more engaged other parents will become, and the more they will involve themselves … . We want a chorus of parents running through the streets saying ‘Put it back on the shelf!’”

The ALA shares Burke’s view. The Library Bill of Rights, adopted by the ALA in 1948, clearly states that “librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents — and only parents — have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children — and only their children — to library resources.”

As a general library policy concerning patrons’ right to the written word, the Library Bill of Rights emphasizes the power of information in a free society. Article 3 reads, “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” As the ALA’s Web site states, “Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.”

The ALA views attempts to suppress certain library materials as symptomatic of a misunderstanding of the library’s institutional role and the rights of all library users. “The censor’s concern about library materials is based upon a view of the library as an important social institution. But the censor may fail to see that the library fulfills its obligations to the community it serves by providing materials presenting all points of view and that is not the function of the library to screen materials according to arbitrary standards of acceptability,” the Web site states.

Special report from Texas
The Texas ACLU publishes a “Free People Read Freely” report on banned and challenged books in Texas public schools. “It was just natural that the ACLU ought to get involved on something so very basic to the constitutions,” Burke said.

Each year, the ACLU branch sends open-records requests to the more than 1,200 school districts in Texas, asking each about book challenges and the schools’ responses to them. This year, 889 districts responded, a number that Burke called “really quite good.”

According to this year’s report, most Texas public schools do not have a reconsideration policy for books that are banned. Although 61% of districts responding say book challenges are reviewed by a committee of teachers, librarians, administrators and often students and parents, 55% of districts said the decision to ban or not to ban a book, once made, was “final and forever.”

Censorship damages children’s education, Burke said. “When you think about the history of banned and challenged books in this country — (John) Steinbeck, Maurice Sendak, Judy Blume, Ray Bradbury, Cormac McCarthy, and the books Go Ask Alice, Bless Me, Ultima … when you think … that there are young people growing up in this state that might miss the opportunity to read Bless Me, Ultima or Go Ask Alice or a Cormac McCarthy book … you have to be very concerned about the education of our children,” she said.

“Reading isn’t even highly valued [in the school systems] anymore to begin with,” Burke said, citing an emphasis on testing in Texas over the last 15 years that has prompted many teachers to “teach to the test.”

“Then you take literature off the shelves of a school library where a curious kiddo might take those books off the shelves and find the motivation to do great things,” Burke said, “and here we are … cheating our kids out of those opportunities.”

Fear of pre-emptive censorship
Challenges to controversial books, many fear, may lead to pre-emptive censorship — directly at odds with the American principle of the free exchange of ideas.

“Attempts to censor can lead to voluntary restriction of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy; in these cases, material may not be published at all or may not be purchased by a bookstore, library, or school district,” said Robert P. Doyle, editor of the Banned Books Resource Guide and recipient of the 2009 Freedom to Read Foundation Roll of Honor Award.

In compiling its report this year, the Texas ACLU found that at least one school district, Stephenville, banned two entire series of teenage vampire novels — P.C. Cast’s House of Night series (six books) and Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series (five books). A couple of the books in both series have yet to be published.

In August, Yale University Press decided not to publish 12 controversial Danish drawings of the Prophet Muhammad in a book about the violent controversy that erupted when the cartoons originally appeared in 2005. The book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, will be published in November with none of the illustrations featuring the prophet.

To keep the mirrors of our society in print and on the shelves, Banned Books Week continues the fight for intellectual freedom, annually reminding Americans not to take the right to read for granted.

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Library Association, American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, National Association of College Stores, and is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

Displays and events at bookstores and libraries around the country can be seen at

Allie Diffendal is a senior majoring in political science and American studies at Vanderbilt University.

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