For this post, I’m taking a break from our regularly scheduled book reviews to celebrate Banned Book Week!
This week we celebrate the freedom to read during this year’s annual Banned Books Week. Although we have many freedoms in the US, the ability to read whatever we like is still being challenged. This week is about freedom we have in choosing what we want to read and the need to preserve that freedom.
What is Banned Books Week?
Every year the American Library Association leads the charge for Banned Books Week. They also publish lists of the most frequently challenged books—these are books that have registered, written complaints against them filed with a library or school. Let’s pause here: at a library or school. Typically, individual complaints on school reading lists are taken care of by alternative assignments (e.g. a high school English class is reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved and a student’s parents contact the teacher complaining that the book is not appropriate for their student). Challenged books are also books that someone believes should not be in a larger group setting—that Beloved shouldn’t be on the reading list for the course or that Beloved should be removed from the school library. I believe that parents should be able to request alternative assignments for books they find objectionable on a case-by-case basis, but what harm is that book doing on the shelf in the library?
Challenged books are also books that people are requesting should be removed because of content or appropriateness. Again, there could be some personal choice, but a book may be challenged in a library, for example, because it is shelved in a young adult section and people argue that it should be shelved with the more general adult fiction. According to the ALA, as of July 2013 the Office of Intellectual Freedom (yep, it’s a real thing) received 5,099 book challenges for the 2000-2009 time period which can be broken down by content challenged like this:
1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”
Further, 274 materials were challenged due to “occult” or “Satanic” themes, an additional 291 were challenged due to their “religious viewpoint,” and 119 because they were “anti-family. (American Library Association)
The issue of banned books is not just about protecting children. Many adults want to ban books for their content and for all age groups. Novels like Fifty Shades of Grey, which are certainly not intended for children, are routinely challenged and banned due to their sexual nature. Can’t adults choose their own books? There is an entire industry of romantic/erotic books (old fashioned “bodice rippers”) that avoid these lists; it is the popular books with similar content that get the attention.
Here are some of the books I’ve read from the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Book list from 2000-2009 and why I think they should be read generally.
Forever… by Judy Blume
Blume is a popular young adult novel writer who is controversial usually for her honest dealings with sexual issues. Forever follows a young girl who decides to have sex for the first time. There are descriptions of sex (how would the novel work otherwise?) but they certainly do not glorify sex (*awkward!*) and the relationship is not a perfect one (but I don’t want to spoil the plot for you). Books like this one and Nick Hornsby’s Slam, about accidental teenage pregnancy, are great books for teenagers curious about sex because they deal with the realistic consequences.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Cormier crafts a wonderful story reminiscent of Animal Farm that deals with the social hierarchy at an all-boys school and what happens when one boy disrupts that order (“Do I dare disturb the universe?”). With a one or two sentence hint at masturbation and some very cruel boys (yes, there’s violence and psychological mind games), this book describes beautifully the cruelty of teenagers and struggles with the idea if making a stand and being an individual is the right thing to do. Relevant for the age group, indeed.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Another book for youngsters (a theme, yes?), Taylor tells the story of a black family living in the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression. While there are some similar themes in this novel to other Great Depression stories (like Of Mice and Men), there are also race issues in the novel. I read this when I was in the 4th or 5th grade and found it relevant and not offensive. I grew up in the South and this book discusses issues that are important for children to understand and relevant to today. This is also a historical fiction novel, and we should be accurate when learning our history—Bad things happened in the past? No way!
[Side note: Shouldn’t we be teaching historical fiction? What’s next, banning books about wartime (e.g., Johnny Tremain or Red Badge of Courage) because they’re too violent? Oh wait, Red Badge of Courage has been banned]
Grendal by John Gardner
Not a children’s book, Gardner explores the story of Grendel, the primary “monster” in the classic Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. I read this novel in the 12th grade, just after reading Beowulf, which was perfect. The novel tells the story of Grendel and Beowulf from Grendel’s point of view and deals with the nature of good and evil as well as who gets to make the decision of what is good and what is evil. Perfectly paired with the epic poem (which contains many violent moments, I mean, it’s all about Beowulf fighting “monsters” and being a hero) Gardner’s novel brings up some important questions for people to think about, especially adults. What is this world coming to when we want to irradiate books that help us think about the nature of good and evil so that we can understand them for ourselves?
These are just a few amazing selections from the ALA’s list. See the rest of it here.
More Frequently Challenged and Banned Books Lists:
The ALA also has a list of Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century. Check out the top 10 challenged books by year, as recently as 2012.
While you’re on the internet, also check out BuzzFeed’s list “15 Books Banned for the Most Absurd Reasons Ever”. Spoiler alert: There are at least 2 on there that have been banned for “blasphemous and unnatural” talking animals.
As you can tell, I am an advocate for not banning books, and instead giving people choice in what they read. A book is not going to instantly change a person’s habits, morals, or the situation of their soul, although books are powerful. What they will do is open up a person’s mind by expanding their points of view. Books are one of the best ways to step into someone else’s shoes and experience a perspective that you just physically can’t because of the time period in which you live, your race or ethnicity, or your gender. Books have made me a more knowledgeable and compassionate person, even the books that I was assigned in school that I didn’t like at the time. So when it comes to books, keep an open mind and get something out of every book you read.