Monday, September 28, 2009

I Read Banned Books!

This week (September 26-October 3) is Banned Book Week. It is the twenty-seventh such national celebration sponsored by the American Library Association. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges come from all across the United States; they come from urban areas, small towns, and suburban and rural communities. The challengers represent different ages, different races, different religious beliefs, and different political viewpoints. What they have in common is their conviction that they have the right to decide what others can read.

Books are challenged on the basis of language (slang, offensive labels, profanity, and obscenities), sexuality (too explicit, too much, the wrong kind), and offensive content (most commonly violence and the occult). I should note that few challenges result in outright bans; more frequent is the imposition of some restrictions. Since most challenges are based on a parent or community’s concern that children be protected from “inappropriate” books, YA books are frequent targets and classrooms and school libraries often the center of controversies.

I taught high school English for fifteen years, and every one of those years I had to deal with at least one parent who objected to some assigned reading material. The objections were directed at works ranging from Seventeenth Summer, a YA classic (1942) by Maureen Daly in which the protagonists are innocent, the kisses chaste, and the darkest shadow the reader’s understanding that WWII lies just ahead, to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, in which Celie, a Black woman in the South writes letters to God in which she tells about her life as daughter, sister, wife, and mother; from “The Miller’s Tale,” Chaucer’s bawdy, low comic tale of adultery and ribald trickery to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor’s short story about a hypocritical Southern grandmother and a serial killer. In each of these cases, the parent was objecting to his/her child reading a particular text, and the problem was resolved by my allowing the student to substitute a parent-approved text.

Did I think the parents’ objections were foolish? Indeed, I did, but I also believed—and still do—that a parent has the right to make decisions about his/her minor child. Where I draw the line is when the parent thinks he/she also has the right to decide what my child or your child can read. I can accommodate a parent’s request that his/her child not read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I will fight with all the resources I can muster the parent who wants to prevent other students in my classroom or other classrooms from reading the novel.

The American Library Association (ALA), a sponsor of Banned Book Week, states on its website:

Celebrating the Freedom to Read is observed during the last week of September each year. Observed since 1982, this annual ALA event reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted. BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to choose what opinions and viewpoints to consume are both met.

I read banned and challenged books regularly. I exult in my freedom to choose what I read, regardless of how popular or unpopular my choice is. In fact, every day I read from the #1 banned book of all time, the Bible.

Among the many other banned or challenged books I have read are:

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
2. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing by Maya Angelou
4. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
5. Forever by Judy Blume
6. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
7. Heart of Darkness by Jospeh Conrad
8. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
9. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
10. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
11. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
12. Grendel by John Gardener
13. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
14. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
15. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
17. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
18. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
19. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
20. Ulysses by James Joyce
21. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
22. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
23. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
24. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
25. The Giver by Lois Lowry
26. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
27. Beloved by Toni Morrison
28. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
29. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
30. Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
31. 1984 by George Orwell
32. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
33. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
34. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
35. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
36. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
37. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
38. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
39. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
40. Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
41. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
42. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
43. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
44. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
45. Sophie's Choice by William Styron
46. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
47. Rabbit Run by John Updike
48. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
49. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
50. Black Boy by Richard Wright

This weekend I’ll be reading aloud A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle to the ten-year-old grand. It’s a book I have long loved, one that has been frequently challenged, and one in which evil is mind control. I think passing it and its ideas on to another generation is a fit celebration of Banned Book Week.

Do you read banned books? Are there any on my list that you find particularly surprising?


Manda said...

One of the best and most well-argued statements in support of BBW I've read--ever. As a librarian this is a pretty important issue for me. Thank you, Janga, for your eloquence.

irisheyes said...

Awesome blog, Janga!

And I totally agree - I have absolutely no problem telling my children what they can and can't read, but take offense when someone else tries to make that decision for me!

If it is that important to these groups they can create a rating system like they do for movies, video games, albums, etc. Give the information and let the adult responsible decide.

It looks as if my daughter is going to be joining your club because one of her required books this year is The Giver.

quantum said...

Janga, I was a bit surprised to read through your list of 'banned books'. Who queried the Harry Potter books? Is the presence of evil forces now considered undesirable in literature by some?

Some of the on line free libraries in the US now have a special section for 'banned books' which can be downloaded eg:

Being banned at some stage seems to be a big incentive to publish, or make into video, at least for adults. I believe Moll Flanders and Lady Chatterley for example were on UK TV not so long ago.

Where children are involved though, some care seems desirable, though it can be taken to ridiculous extremes. There was a story in the English papers recently about a school canteen renaming 'spotted Dick' pudding as 'spotted Richard' due to 'juvenile comments'! The original has now been restored I think due to parental pressure/ridicule. *grin*

I think that 'Golly Wogs' have long disappeared from toy shops and led to some of Enid Blyton's books being banned from school libraries.

I don't believe that anyone really surveyed our West Indian and African immigrants as to whether they found the toys offensive though. Such decisions seem to be made by anonymous committee's advising govt ministers. Sometimes it seems like psychology gone mad!

Interesting blog!

Renee said...

Great blog, Janga. I've never paid attention to whether or not a book was banned. I'm actually surprised at some of the books on the list. As of right now, I make up the kiddos literature reading list and several banned books are on it.

Janga said...

Thank you, Manda. I think issues we're passionate about inspire eloquence in all of us.

Irish, how marvelous that your daughter is reading The Giver. It is such an important book, one that young people respond to with such thoughtfulness. It makes me sad that it's among the books most frequently attacked.

Jonas says when he first meets The Giver, “I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.” That's where most of our kids are. They so need to learn what The Giver has to teach. Lois Lowry gave a beautiful acceptance speech when The Giver won the Newberry in 1994. You should read it when your daughter reads the book.

Janga said...

Q, LOL about "spotted Richard."

The objections to Harry Potter here came mostly from the religious right, many of whom objected to the magical elements as contrary to biblical teaching. Interestingly, with the last book published, some critics have changed their minds about HP.

Renee, I usually found that the banned YA books were the very ones that most engaged my students and produced the most interesting class discussions.