Censor READ this book

Friday, September 26, 2008

A celebration of the first of the three R’s — reading — kicks off tomorrow with the beginning of Banned Books Week.

Touted by its sponsors as the only national celebration of the freedom to read, the 27th annual Banned Books Week, Sept. 27-Oct. 4, will recognize books that have raised controversy around the country.

“Book censorship remains a serious problem in the United States, and Banned Books Week is the way that most Americans hear about it,” said Chris Finan, president of one of the sponsors, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, in a press release.

The American Library Association, another sponsor of Banned Books Week, has tracked book challenges for more than 15 years in its effort to protect the freedom to read.

“Free access to information is a core American value that should be protected. Not every book is right for each reader, but an individual’s interpretation of a book should not take away my right to select reading materials for my family or myself,” said Judith F. Krug, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in a press release.

The ALA supports librarians facing challenges by providing information about the challenged books and their authors as well as advice, opinion articles and expert testimonies to fight the challenges.

The ALA defines a challenge as a “formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school, requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness,” according to its Web site. The ALA reported 420 such challenges to books in libraries and schools in 2007, which was lower than the 546 documented in 2006. Most challenges were from parents who raised concerns about sexually explicit material, offensive language and themes inappropriate for certain age groups.

The ALA’s 10 Most Challenged Books of 2007 and the reasons for the challenges were:

  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, for anti-ethnic bias, sexism, homosexuality, anti-family themes, religious viewpoints and unsuitability for age group.

  2. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, for sexually explicit content, offensive language and violence.

  3. Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes, for sexually explicit content and offensive language.

  4. The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, for religious viewpoint.

  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, for racism.

  6. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, for homosexuality, sexually explicit content and offensive language.

  7. TTYL, by Lauren Myracle, for sexually explicit content, offensive language and unsuitability for age group.

  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, for sexually explicit content.

  9. It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris, for sex education and sexually explicit content.

  10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, for homosexuality, sexually explicit content, offensive language and unsuitability for age group.

And Tango Makes Three topped the list for the second consecutive year. Only two other books — The Chocolate War and The Perks of Being a Wallflower — were also in the top 10 in 2006. Three books make their first appearance on the list this year: Olive’s Ocean, The Golden Compass and TTYL. (See ALA’s top-10 lists from 1991-2007.)

In addition to parents, activist groups are also frequent challengers of books. The Associated Press recently reported about a years-long battle over two sex-education books in Nampa, Idaho. In 2005, Randy Jackson, leader of the Christian group Youth 4 Revolution, asked the Nampa library to remove permanently The New Joy of Sex and The Joy of Gay Sex from public shelves. In 2006, the board rejected Jackson’s request. But after three new members were appointed, the board voted 3-2 last June to remove the books from public shelves and make them available only on request. However, in a victory for censorship opponents, the board reversed its decision Sept. 5 after threats of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

The board of directors for the Lewis and Clark Public Library in Helena, Mont., also held a recent hearing on The Joy of Gay Sex. Helena resident Paul Cohen challenged the book after finding it in the library in February. According to the AP, more than a dozen people testified in favor of the book’s removal during the hearing. Meanwhile, 20 others defended the book, with resident Mike Cronin saying that a public library should not have to serve as a parent. The decision is expected to be made at the board’s Oct. 21 meeting.

To promote awareness of similar instances of book banning as well as of the most widely challenged books, ALA and ABFFE launched a new Web site, www.bannedbooksweek.org, in August. The site also highlights Banned Books Week events by listing participating bookstores and libraries in communities nationwide.

“Hundreds of bookstores and libraries participate in Banned Books Week every year. Bannedbooksweek.org will make it easy for the public to find them,” ABFFE’s Finan said.

The ABFFE also has added other resources to its fight against censorship. With the National Coalition Against Censorship, the group introduced the Kids’ Right to Read Project, which fought the banning of 47 books in 22 states in the past year. The project created a full-time staff position to write letters to school boards and public officials on behalf of booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents and students.

One example of a case in which the project was active was in Missouri Valley, Iowa, where a local pastor challenged the use of Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk in Missouri Valley High School English classes. The pastor complained that the book — which was number five on the ALA’s 2005 top-10 list — contained explicit language. The ABFFE and NCAC joined in writing a letter to the local school board, recommending that it reject the challenge. The books were returned to classrooms afterward.

In addition to the ABFFE and ALA, Banned Books Week’s sponsors are the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores. The event is also endorsed by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress.

Courtney Holliday is a senior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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