School Climate & Safety

Campaign Against Book Banning Turns 30

By Ross Brenneman — October 03, 2012 3 min read
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Brush off your copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, because it’s 30th Annual Banned Books Week. Organized by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week celebrates open access to information, while issuing a call to action against censorship.

Hosts of organizations nationwide use the week, which runs until Saturday, as a way to engage students on literacy and law; it only helps that the books frequently targeted for banishment can provide some of the most challenging and captivating reading experiences to students.

Schools and libraries offer public readings of banned books, as does the ALA, which is running its Second Annual Virtual Read-Out, wherein YouTube users upload videos of themselves reading passages of censored books. Monterey Trail High School, in Elk Grove, Calif., offers a Forbidden Book Display, and puts a question in its daily school bulletin about banned books. Others get more creative, as with the San Francisco-based event “Naked Girls Reading Banned Books.” (I suppose student engagement at that would be more limited. Or the reverse.)

Not that censorship is being taken lightly. In a video released on his website, broadcast journalist and Banned Book Week honorary co-chair Bill Moyers praised the celebration, while lambasting censorship.

“Some of the most inspiring and mind-opening words ever written are threatened with removal because they offended a self-deputized vigilante who wants to deny an entire community’s curiosity and passion to learn. Censorship is the enemy of truth, even more than the lie. A lie can be exposed; censorship can prevent us from knowing the difference,” he said.

And to some organizations, censorship isn’t the sole issue in the discussion of banned books. In San Antonio, the Landa Branch Library is hosting events that equate censorship to bullying. And in Tucson, Ariz., the University of Arizona Libraries are facilitating a dialogue on how banned books fit in the context of that community’s long struggle with an ethnic-studies program. In December 2011, a judge ruled that the program violated a state law against promoting discrimination, and the local school board consented to suspending the program.

Still, the major issue for students comes down to skepticism.

“Usually they’re asking about particular books,” said Angela Maycock, assistant director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, the branch of the ALA that oversees Banned Book Week. “When I hear from young people, they’re usually saying ‘Why on earth would anyone want to ban Where the Sidewalk Ends,’ or, ‘How can someone not want me to read Harry Potter? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.’ ”

That list of objectionable material grows longer each year. Some books, to be sure, are mainstays. Aldus Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931; it was #7 on the list of most-challenged books in 2011; critics have said it makes promiscuous sex “look like fun” and includes drug use. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon has been challenged at least four times since 1993 for being, among other adjectives, “repulsive.” Perennial target The Catcher in the Rye has been called (brace yourselves) obscene, anti-white, vulgar, profane, excessively violent, overly sexual, blasphemous, a “filthy, filthy novel,” and the real humdinger, “negative.” And The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, objectifies living beings as “Things,” and contains whimsical feline anthropomorphism.

(OK, that last one might not be real.)

Of challenges to reading materials between 2007-2011, only seven states—Delaware, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Vermont—had zero reported incidents. The ALA recorded 348 challenges in 2010, but estimates it is only alerted to about a quarter of all challenges.

View Book Bans and Challenges, 2007-2011 in a larger map

“It’s often when a student brings a book home ... and mom or dad picks it up and says, ‘Hey Johnny, what are you reading for class?’ and maybe flips through the book and finds something in there that they don’t think is appropriate for their child,” Maycock said. “That’s often where we see the impetus for these challenges.”

Maycock noted that schools can work to avoid such conflicts by engaging parents early, relating the story of a South Carolina librarian who formed a book club where parents could read and learn about the literature to which their children had access.

“There are wonderful opportunities to work with parents to help them feel informed about what’s out there so that they don’t feel blind-sided.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.