Banned Books

Banned Books

Every year in September the American Library Association (ALA) highlights books that have been controversial through the past year. They call it "Banned Book Week." The theme this year is, "Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us." This year has been an interesting year for banned books. Rather than waiting until September to make the news, book challenges have been front-page news all year. 

What is this all about? Who should get to decide what Americans can read? Who should decide what information you have access to? Should politicians choose books for us to read? Should librarians? Should parents be responsible for what their children check out? Is this the beginning of a slippery slope of not being personally responsible for our choices?

Personally, I don't trust politicians to pick out my reading material, or what my children can read. It's not personal, but I know what our family values are, and they aren't likely to overlap much with any politician's values. What is right for your family may not be right for my family. Ashley Macdonald from Wellington, Colorado said, "I don't want anyone in this room telling me how to parent my child and I won't tell you how to parent yours."

Unlike politicians, librarians learn how to select books they don't agree with. Nobody would want to read only books that I like. Libraries have a responsibility to provide information about all sides of an issue, not just the ones the librarian likes. Not just the ones certain people like. It's how we provide information for the entire community.

How does censorship divide us?

"And Tango Makes Three" is a book about two real-life male penguins who adopted and hatched an egg. It's been on the banned book list since 2005. You might not want your child to read about a penguin who has two dads, but same-sex marriage is legal in the United States. Families in our community want to read about other families like theirs. 

Some books that have been banned seem silly to us, but the people who objected felt their reasons were valid. Someone objected to "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank because it was too depressing. Well, yes, war is generally a depressing subject, but putting a face on the Holocaust helps us understand humanity.

"Goosebumps" by R.L. Stine was banned for the series' violent nature. Aside from being violent, these books are what we call "high-low," which stands for high interest-low vocabulary. These sorts of books get reluctant readers hooked on reading. James Patterson writes about 25 high-low books for adults each year. They are easy to read, they have a lot of action, and coincidentally many of Patterson's books are violent. It turns out readers of all ages enjoy reading scary books.

Libraries in two states removed "Little House on the Prairie" from their shelves. A re-read of Wilder's book will jog your memory. Caroline Ingalls had strong, uncharitable feelings towards the Native American families. Families the homesteaders crowded off their lands. Rather than remove the book from shelves, we could use this opportunity to discuss how the language she uses is not appropriate and how society has changed. Wilder's books remind us of a "simpler, more innocent time" but was it so simple for everyone?

How do books unite us?

Two of my favorite authors said it best. Dr Seuss said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” George R.R. Martin said,“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.”  Reading opens up doors to other people's perspectives. Books are doors into things we don't understand, like how the Holocaust affected real-life people. Books can leave us on the edge of our seats. Books also show us our history, things our ancestors did well, and mistakes they made.

Ultimately, we are Americans who believe in freedom and the First Amendment. This means we are responsible for supervising our children's reading interests. We can select what we want to read ourselves, but it also means letting others decide for themselves and their families. 

Suzanne Fisher Staples said it well in her essay, What Johnny Can't Read: Censorship in American Libraries: "Each book has its own gifts to offer, but the freedom to choose which to read teaches some of life's most important lessons–trusting yourself, knowing what you believe in, tolerance–all of which are more difficult to learn once you get beyond childhood."