Classics celebrated as ‘Banned Books Week’ turns 30
Fifty Shades of Grey joins list of classics including Catcher in the Rye which have been challenged in schools and libraries
As America’s annual celebration of the right to read prepares to kick off on Sunday, EL James’s erotic sensation Fifty Shades of Grey joins a list of classics including Catcher in the Rye and Fahrenheit 451 which have been challenged in libraries and schools.
Banned Books Week, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, will be marked with displays of censored literature in thousands of libraries and bookshops across the US from 30 September. There will be a “virtual read-out“, where readers and authors name their favourite censored titles, a “50 Shades of Banned” reading of erotic literature in Manhattan, courtesy of the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund, and the American Library Association has named a series of titles challenged or censored over the past 30 years, from Catcher in the Rye to the Harry Potter series.
One writer, Corey Michael Dalton, is taking his celebration of banned literature to the extreme, and will be spending the week in the window of Indianapolis’s Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. “It’s about bringing attention to Banned Books Week, which has been observed [in] the last week of September every year since 1982,” he told the library. “Many people are surprised to learn that books are still actively being challenged and/or banned in the US, but it’s true. In 2011, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games trilogy were all in the list of top 10 most challenged books.”
The American Library Association received 326 reports of attempts to remove books from shelves last year. This year has been no quieter, with parent protests in Tennessee leading to a ban of John Green’s award-winning novel Looking for Alaska because it “contained an awkward sexual encounter between the teenage protagonists”, and Amy Timberlake’s acclaimed picture book The Dirty Cowboy drawing protests in Pennsylvania for including an image of the cowboy taking a bath. “The parents’ complaint rested on the idea that: ‘Children may come to the conclusion that looking at nudity is OK, and therefore pornography is OK’,” said the National Coalition Against Censorship at the time. “When we hear individuals call drawings of a partially nude bather ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic’, it becomes clear that the instinct to censor is alive and well in this country.”
Author and librarian James Klise, meanwhile, has spoken out about the withdrawal of his invitation to speak at a Kansas library – ironically enough during Banned Books Week itself. “I received a second email from the librarian. She hated to say it, but I probably was not a good fit for their event after all. She explained that she works in a very conservative community,” Klise wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “After some consideration, she and her principal decided that my first young-adult novel, called Love Drugged, about a closeted gay teen, might be too edgy for some parents there.”
Klise said the withdrawal of his invitation would make sure the Banned Books Week celebration at his Chicago library would be “less light-hearted” than it has been in the past. “Most people truly do believe in the freedom to read. Diversity and respecting individuality are standard practice here. Maybe that’s what compelled me to write the essay for the Tribune – to convey my surprise and sadness at the experience with the Kansas school, and to acknowledge how good I have it in Chicago,” he told the Guardian. “I guess I’ve always assumed that my book gets less exposure in conservative parts of the country. I should add that the Kansas librarian was extremely torn about rescinding the invitation. She wrote to me that she was sick to her stomach about it, and I empathise with her predicament. I suspect it happens all the time.”
Moore’s Neonomicon, meanwhile, was challenged over its sexual content when a teenager borrowed it from the library, and Fifty Shades of Grey was briefly banned from some Florida libraries until protests prompted a rethink.
Joan Bertin, executive director of National Coalition Against Censorship, said it was “business as usual” this year. “Picture books for little kids have been challenged because of partial nudity (The Dirty Cowboy) and an allusion to families with same-sex parents (The Family Book). At the other end of the spectrum we’re still seeing challenges to books for older teens that are being taught in advanced literature classes (Bastard Out of Carolina). On the more popular side of the YA genre, we saw renewed challenges against books like Looking For Alaska and Feed,” she said. “And there are always a few challenges to adult literature in public libraries because kids might see it (Neonomicon – written by UK comics legend Alan Moore) or because of sexual content (Fifty Shades of Grey).”
Bertin also pointed to the closure of the Mexican American studies programme in high schools in Tucson, Arizona. “The wholesale removal of hundreds of books used in the programme was censorship on a massive scale that is rarely seen,” she said, going on to express concerns about a growing movement to give age-ratings to children’s books.
“Young adult books have been coming under attack because of their ‘dark’ subject matter and use of profanity, and these kinds of criticisms are spawning proposals to ‘rate’ books, the way movies and video games are rated,” she said. “We’re strongly opposed to book ratings for many reasons. Books will be rated not because of their literary, educational or entertainment value, but because they contain some profanity, sexual scenes, violence, drug or alcohol use, or just because the characters are ‘bad role models’. Ratings obscure the value of literature and inevitably lead to censorship.”
Klise said the battle against censorship was just as important as it has always been. “To fight censorship is to acknowledge how vitally important the freedom to read is,” he said. “Isn’t the ability to choose what we read essential to discovering who we truly are?”
The top 10 most frequently challenged books of 2011
1) ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle – offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
2) The Colour of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa – nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
3) The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins – anti-ethnic, anti-family, insensitivity, offensive language, occult/satanic, violence
4) My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler – nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
5) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie – offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
6) Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint
7) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – insensitivity, nudity, racism, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
8) What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones – nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
9) Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar – drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit
10) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – offensive language, racism
[DML East Branch Library celebrates “Banned Books Week” via Flickr.]