Sponsored by: American Booksellers Association
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Library Association
Association of American Publishers
Center for the Book in the Library of Congress
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
National Association of College Stores
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Council of Teachers of English
PEN American Center
Tomorrow begins the annual celebration of the freedom to read. Banned Books Week 2011 (September 24-October 1) will be the thirtieth year that a focus on books that have been banned or challenged has been observed. According to the American Library Association (ALA), the goal of the observation is "to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society." Each year there are hundreds of challenges to books in schools and libraries in the United States. According to ALA, at least 348 such challenges were reported in 2010, just a fraction of the total challenges of which 70-80 percent goes unreported.
In his book Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, Nat Hentoff writes that “the lust to suppress can come from any direction.” Those who bring the challenges come from all across the country and hold various political viewpoints. Since they often claim to be motivated by a desire “to protect children,” schools and school libraries are the most frequent targets, and sex, profanity, and racism are the most frequent bases of objections. Challenges significantly outnumber actual bans, but challenges may result in voluntary censorship by school administrators or boards of education who are eager to avoid controversy.
As a voracious reader and as one who has spent a lifetime in classrooms as student and teacher, I know that I am directly affected by attempts to censor books. So are you. None of us wants to see our freedom to read what we choose abridged. ALA reminds of ways that we can be actively involved in protecting the right to read within our communities.
1. Stay Informed
Battles are fought on the local level. It is due to the efforts of librarians, teachers, booksellers, and members of the community that so few challenges result in bans, but knowing what’s happening in your community is the necessary first step. Attend library board meetings, school board meetings, and PTA meetings so that you are aware of what’s going on locally. Support national organizations that are dedicated to preserving the freedom to read. The Freedom to Read Foundation, for example, was founded to protect the rights of people to freely express their ideas and to read and listen to the ideas of others. The organization exists “to promote and defend this right; to foster libraries as institutions wherein every individual's First Amendment freedoms are fulfilled; and to support the right of libraries to include in their collections and make available any work which they may legally acquire.
2. Challenge Censorship.
When challenges occur in your community or when state or national legislation that would limit reading freedom is being proposed, write your representatives or other public officials to express your opposition, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper that lets your community know that the challengers are not speaking for you, and report censorship to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
3. Support Banned Books Week
This year the sponsors of Banned Books Week are offering everyone the opportunity to participate in a virtual read-out by creating a video of themselves reading from their favorite banned or challenged books. More information is available here. You can also follow Banned Books Week on Facebook, watch Banned Books Week videos on YouTube, and follow the hashtag #bannedbooksweek on Twitter. You can participate in special activities planned for this week by schools, colleges and universities, and libraries near you. You can make sure you get caught reading in the week ahead and let those around you know that you are reading a banned or challenged book.
Between May 2010 and May 2011, nearly fifty books were challenged, restricted, removed, or banned in (as reported in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom). These books include modern literary classics, recent fiction bestsellers, YA books, nonfiction, even a children’s book. My personal celebration is to read (or rather reread in all cases but one) a banned or challenged book each day of the eight-day celebration. These are the books I’ve chosen:
1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (2009) by Sherman Alexie
YA novel, NYT bestseller, 2007 National Book Award Winner, banned because of violence, language, and sexual content
2. Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson
YA novel, NYT bestseller, Printz Honor Book for literary excellence in YA literature in 2000, center of major controversy in 2010, challenged as “soft pornography” that “glorifies drinking, cursing, premarital sex.”
3. Forever in Blue, the Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood (2008) by Ann Brashares
YA novel, final book in a popular series about four friends, takes place summer after their freshman year at college, challenged because some of the characters are sexually active and drink alcohol.
4. The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin
Novel, originally charged with being anti-religious and immoral by 19th-century critics, reclaimed in 1969 and recognized as important feminist work, accepted as canonical work of American literature, challenged because cover showed bare-breasted woman.
5. Water for Elephants (2006) by Sara Gruen
Novel, NYT bestseller about life in a circus and the realities of aging, challenged because of sexual content.
6. Snow Falling On Cedars (1994) by David Guterson
Novel, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction 1995, deals with prejudice against Japanese-Americans in the Pacific Northwest during and shortly after World War II challenged because parent found some passages “lewd, vulgar, and profane.”
7. Song of Solomon (1977) by Toni Morrison
Novel, uses African myth and African-American folklore to explore themes of identity, rituals of manhood, naming, and reading, National Book Critics Circle Award 1978, cited in awarding Morrison 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, challenged because of language and sexual content.
8. Jubilee (1966) by Margaret Walker
Historical novel, based on life of Walker’s grandmother, one of the first novels to present the nineteenth-century African American historical experience in the South from a black and female point of view, winner of Houghton Mifflin's Literary Fellowship Award, challenged as “offensive” and “trashy” view of the Old South that promotes “superiority for white people.” [Note: challenged in 1977 by KKK and accused of producing “racial strife and hatred.”]
How are you celebrating Banned Books Week? What banned or challenged books have you read?