Banned Books Week: Time to Hit the Library!

It’s Banned Books Week until October the 6th so what better time to talk about the freedom to read and go off and subversively read some banned or challenged books? There’s a great link on the American Library Association’s site with the top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009. Some of them are completely predictable and some of them are more surprising. The reasons given for withdrawing books are, in the words of the ALA site:

Books usually are challenged with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information.

However, it is always easy to see where such noble intentions have been subverted and politics or other overtones have come into play. Let’s look at the Top 10 from 1990-1999 as an example:

  1. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz (7)
  2. Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite (-)
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (6)
  4. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (3)
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (14)
  6. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (5)
  7. Forever, by Judy Blume (16)
  8. Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (28)
  9. Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman (-)
  10. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (19)

Book 1 is scary and has gruesome illustrations. Book 2 deals with homosexual parents.Book 3 contains a rape involving an eight year old girl. Book 4 is about bullying and also contains a masturbation scene. Book 5 is … book 5 is Huckleberry Finn!!! Of course, HF is probably in here because of the fairly extensive use of racial pejoratives and stereotypes, even if argument can be made that the book itself is anti-racist. Book 6 is a magnificent book but, between the deaths and a dead puppy, it’s not exactly an easy book. Book 7 has teen sex in it but nowhere near the same tone or difficulty as some of the previous. Book 8 is a surprisingly depressing book that manages to balance a fantasy world with death and disappointment. Book 9, well, what a surprise, another book on homosexuality has made the list. Finally, we have Catcher, full of profanity and sexual depiction.

Looking at this list, we see sex, racism, homosexual relationships and death being the major themes. (Notably, to be banned for sex, depictions that range to the explicit are required for heterosexual activity, but it is merely the existence of the relationship that can suffice for homosexual relationships.) Those numbers at the end are, by the way, where they feature in the top 100 of 2000-2009. Let’s look at that to see what appals and is too complicated for children or library users in the first decade of the 21st Century, I’ve bolded the new entries:

1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

I’ll come back to Harry Potter in a moment. Number 2, the Alice series, covers a wide range of topics, including our old friend sex, so it’s for the sexual content that it made the list – topping the list in 2003. Number 4 is a children’s book based on the observed behaviour of two male penguins who became a couple and raised a hatchling. (You can read about Roy and Silo here.) Number 8 has some nasty moments across the trilogy but, in the main, has drawn most of its criticism because of a negative portrayal of religion in general, and Christianity specifically. Number 9 is on the list because, from a Banned Books story in 2010, “Preoccupied with sex and college, the teen girls encounter realistic situations that feature foul language, drugs and alcohol in a less than casual way.” Finally, the new number 10 contains references to suicide and death, as well as the usual teen cocktail of drugs, alcohol and sex that guarantee requests for banning. Oh, and there’s also a gay friend and there is a reference to child molestation. But none of it is graphic and it’s written up as a series of letters to a friend.

So the themes are now sex, drugs, bad language, homosexual penguins (Penguin Lust!), discussion of real teenagers and… fantasy novels? Let me return to Harry Potter which contains teens who are so heavily plasticised that they appear to have no real functioning genitalia, never smoke drugs, don’t swear seriously even when being threatened with death and are laughably vanilla in so many ways that the dominant fantasy conceit of the HP universe is not the magic, it’s that teenagers would actually function this way! This, and the inclusion of His Dark Materials, appear to show the direction that book banning has taken over the last decade: removing a point of view for reasons that appear to have little to do with protecting children from difficult ideas and information, but to remove them from ideas that have been stated as unacceptable by some form of organised body.

I strongly suggest looking at both lists, side-by-side, so that you too can have the moments that I had of cocking your head to one side and thinking “why is that on there?” Then coming to the slow, and unpleasant realisation, that the answer is not “because it’s too dark or encourages drug use” but “because of an organised campaign by a group who are trying to orchestrate the removal of a book that, ultimately, is a fairy tale and of no more harm to children than any other”.

There are sometimes good reasons to restrict access, by age or maturity, to certain materials and, definitely, there are lines that you can’t cross and expect to show up on a public library on the shelves – this is a far cry from completely removing or destroying a work. But what appears to be happening now is that the political reasons for banning are starting to dominate, with Internet and local organisation allowing a majority to form that can request a book’s withdrawal. Fortunately, the Internet can bring books to anyone but, with existing models, e-Books may not be as widely available as we often think so the local and school library forms a valuable point for students. I read voraciously when I was younger and, despite reading many of the banned books on the lists, I don’t appear to have turned out too badly. (I know, I know, anecdotal existential evidence doesn’t count. But I can say that not everyone who reads The Chocolate War turns into a psychopath, so why is it always in the top 5? If anything, it made me aware that the adult advice on bullying was generally an empty mechanism that never dealt with the real problem: bullies are not always cowards, don’t fear the same type of repercussions and, sometimes, are in charge. I know – how subversive!)

Let me leave you with an example of how things have changed in the last two decades. One inclusion on the banned book list only showed up in the last decade, despite being published decades earlier, and it’s number 69 on the 2000-2009 list. I’m scared how high it will be driven in the 2010-2019 list and it is yet another example of why we have to be very careful about how we construct any list of books that we wish to treat differently. Or ‘sanction’. You might have heard of it.

It’s called Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

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