Banned Books Week: Celebrating the freedom to read

Every year during the last week in September, the American Library Association sponsors Banned Books Week. It is an event which unites librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all kinds in a shared appreciation and support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those that some people might consider unorthodox or unpopular or even offensive.

The purpose of Banned Books Week is really to draw attention to the harm that censorship does. The books that are featured have all been targeted for removal or restriction in libraries and schools, but, while some books have been and continue to be banned, there is reason to celebrate the fact that, in the majority of cases, the books have remained available. This is true thanks to the efforts of librarians and members of the community who continue to stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.

In recent years, the big push among those who seek to ban books has been in the field of young adult fiction. The would-be banners are apparently driven by a desire to protect teenagers from tales of sex, drugs, and suicide, according to reports from the ALA. It's an understandable impulse driven by what may be a laudable concern for the sensibilities of teens, but it seems ultimately misguided. It is not as if teenagers are unaware of these topics. They are curious about the topics and they need information. A well-crafted and sensitively-written bit of fiction can provide a great deal of illumination on the subjects. It seems (to this outside observer, at least) that teenagers are more often harmed by a lack of information than they are by too much or even the "wrong" kind of information.

The books that appear on the most challenged or banned books year after year tend to be books about outsiders. They open their readers to other experiences and emotions and they can be reassurances to the teenage outsider that he or she is not alone and that it is okay to be different.

Moreover, reading about racism or about teen suicide will not make you a racist or induce you to commit suicide. On the contrary, it may help you to better understand those issues and make you less likely to fall prey to them. In fact, teenagers who are over-sheltered may find it more difficult to cope with the world as adults. Reading a variety of literature can help to prepare them for the struggles they will face.

The ALA first started monitoring complaints and requests to ban books in 1982. It says that it has recorded challenges to more than 11,300 titles during that time but estimates that the real number is probably much higher since all attempts to ban books are not necessarily recorded. The authors that have most often appeared on the banned-book list since 1982 are J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, Judy Blume, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, and John Steinbeck. These were coincidentally some of my teenage daughters' favorite authors as they were growing up.

During 2012, they recorded 464 complaints, and these were the books that were most often challenged and the stated reasons that they were challenged.
  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey.
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
    Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher.
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  5. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
  6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  8. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence
  9. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  10. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence
Banned Books Week runs through Saturday, September 28. Celebrate it by reading something outrageous this week!



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