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banned-books-week

Don’t Read That!

banned-books-weekAs Americans, we take a lot of our freedoms for granted. Other than yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, we don’t even think twice about our right to say what we want when we want. We trust that law enforcement cannot enter our homes without a warrant, and we know that the freedom of religion is an ideal on which our country was founded.

But imagine a reality in which we couldn’t read what we wanted. The freedom to write books of varying opinions and subject matter is protected by the First Amendment, under the freedom of speech. Have you considered that this extends to protect your freedom to read? Protecting everyone’s freedom to read what they want is a bedrock of librarianship, and it’s more of a constant concern than you might expect. There are frequent calls to censor books people don’t agree with or find objectionable in some way. If the move to censor a book is successful, it may be pulled from the shelves of schools, public libraries, and even booksellers.

A surge of book bans and challenges in the 1980s led to the banding together of people across the book trade to protect the freedom to read and draw attention to banned and challenged books, and thus Banned Book Week was born. Typically held the last week of September, Banned Book Week celebrates the most challenged books of the previous year, inspires advocacy around the need to protect our freedom to read, and highlights the value of free and open access to information. By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week underscores the harms of censorship.

Curious about the most challenged books of 2017? The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom compiles lists of the most challenged books across the country. Last year, the Top Ten Most Challenged Books were (quoted directly from the bannedbooksweek.org website):

  1. Thirteen Reasons Why written by Jay Asher. Originally published in 2007, this New York Times bestseller has resurfaced as a controversial book after Netflix aired a TV series by the same name. This YA novel was challenged and banned in multiple school districts because it discusses suicide.
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian written by Sherman Alexie. Consistently challenged since its publication in 2007 for acknowledging issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality, this National Book Award winner was challenged in school curriculums because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.
  3. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. This Stonewall Honor Award-winning, 2012 graphic novel from an acclaimed cartoonist was challenged and banned in school libraries because it includes LGBT characters and was considered “confusing.”
  4. The Kite Runnerwritten by Khaled Hosseini. This critically acclaimed, multigenerational novel was challenged and banned because it includes sexual violence and was thought to “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam.”
  5. Georgewritten by Alex Gino. Written for elementary-age children, this Lambda Literary Award winner was challenged and banned because it includes a transgender child.
  6. Sex is a Funny Wordwritten by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth. This 2015 informational children’s book written by a certified sex educator was challenged because it addresses sex education and is believed to lead children to “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”
  7. To Kill a Mockingbirdwritten by Harper Lee. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, considered an American classic, was challenged and banned because of violence and its use of the N-word.
  8. The Hate U Givewritten by Angie Thomas. Despite winning multiple awards and being the most searched-for book on Goodreads during its debut year, this YA novel was challenged and banned in school libraries and curriculums because it was considered “pervasively vulgar” and because of drug use, profanity, and offensive language.
  9. And Tango Makes Threewritten by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole. Returning after a brief hiatus from the Top Ten Most Challenged list, this ALA Notable Children’s Book, published in 2005, was challenged and labeled because it features a same-sex relationship.
  10. I Am Jazz written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. This autobiographical picture book co-written by the 13-year-old protagonist was challenged because it addresses gender identity.

There’s an interesting and unintended consequence to banning books however. Prohibiting something gives it the allure of being taboo; telling people, especially teens, that they “can’t” do something only makes them want to do it more. Banning books can actually catapult them into popularity.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and choice of reading material is often a matter of taste. People who challenge books disagree with their content, opinions expressed, etc – and that’s fine. We’re never going to all agree on what constitutes offensive content, and what a boring world it would be if we only ever saw our own values reflected back to us. The problem doesn’t lie with differences of opinion, but instead with restricting others’ access to information and books they might want to read.

In a famous passage discussing Voltaire, historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And librarians will continue to protect your right to read. Help us celebrate Banned Books Week 2018 this week, September 23-29. We have a display of banned books on the second floor – some of the titles might surprise you! – and we can help you find other titles you might be looking for.

Liz Reed is an Adult and Information Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Liz’s column in the September 27, 2018 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Lydia Sampson

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