The Bottom Line
: This is an essay/editorial I originally wrote for
Banned Books Week back in 2011.
gone through and made some minor tweaks and added a couple of paragraphs.
The stats may be outdated now as well, but I
didn’t have the time to try to update that section.
I certainly still stand by the spirit of this
Every year when Banned Books Week rolls around, my hackles go
It's because, according to some
definitions, I am a book banner.
When I was a junior in high school, my high school had
posters that were up in display cases for a month at a time on various
One month, the topic was banned
I very carefully read those
posters to see what was being said.
At this point, 25 years later, the details are fuzzy.
I do remember that the poster that gave
examples of situations where books were banned infuriated me, and I went home
and ranted about it to my parents.
recall, there were five stories on this poster.
Four of them were of parents who had objected to various books in
classrooms or school libraries - you know, the standard stuff you hear
In all four of these cases, the
parents lost and the book stayed in the school library or their child was given
an alternative assignment while the rest of the class read the book.
So what about the fifth case?
If I made you guess, I bet you'd come up with
the title within five guesses - The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain.
There are two reasons this book was different
from the other four.
challenge was brought by a teacher.
Second, the book actually was removed from the classrooms of the school.
So right there, I learned that parents are ignored and
teachers are listened to.
standard bothered me.
At least it was
included with the parents in this list.
I'm also bothered by the terms used.
All five of these were presented on the
poster as banned books.
Yet only one was
really banned, the one brought by the teacher.
I realize that, if you read the fine print, you'll see that the list
every year includes challenged and banned books.
But that's not what is headlined.
Instead, we only talk about banned books,
whether the book was actually banned or not.
But here's the thing that bothered me even more.
In at least one of the instances where a
parent objected to a book, they only objected to their kid being made to read
They asked for and received an
alternative assignment for their child.
And yet they were labeled a book banner.
No, I don't remember the book in question.
I wish I did.
Believe me, there were several books I wish I hadn't read in
The one that immediately
springs to mind is Song of Solomon
Even now, I am repulsed
by some of the things in that book.
shocking for shock sake and filled with unlikable characters.
Honestly, if I had an inkling what was in it
before I started reading it, I would have asked for an alternative
By the time I realized just
how foul it was, it would have been a pain for me and the teacher, so I just
Does this make me a book banner?
I did opt out of a book later that year - the infamous Cather in the Rye
Yes, I did check the book out of the library
and read the first few pages on my own before we were due to start it, so I had
some clue what I was talking about when I objected to the language in it.
Instead, I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
, which remains one of
my favorite books read in high school.
did sit in on class, so I got some of the themes of the book (although like
several other books we read that year, I don't remember much anymore).
Does this make me a book banner?
According to some definitions, it does, as
Before we go any further, I want to be clear on
I have absolutely no problems
with parents objecting to something their child is being exposed to in the
classroom, and this goes for movies as well as books.
(Yes, I was shown R rated films in high
school by teachers when I was not yet old enough to see them.)
A child has to be in the classroom, but
ultimately, it is the parent's right and responsibility to raise the child
however they see fit.
It is not the
right of the teacher or school to raise the child.
That's why this issue always resonates so
strongly with me.
When parents are being
called banners or censors because they object to something for their own child
and their child alone, that is wrong.
I am more conflicted about contents of school
A parent should be monitoring
what a child reads at home, but a book could be checked out of a school library
and left at school.
If that happens,
then the parent would have no idea their child was reading it.
Since the book is still chosen by the
student, I am less certain of how I stand on this one.
When it comes to public libraries, I feel most challenges
should be just that, challenges.
should be monitoring what their child reads and checks out from a public library.
Removing a book from a public library because
it offends you does bother me, even in the case of books that I don't think
should have been published in the first place.
And let's be clear on this point, too.
What you find objectionable, I might
I fully realize that if we let
every parent pick every book used in a classroom, there might be nothing left
(although that is a slippery slope argument, something I learned is a fallacy
in my college logic class).
because a book is challenged doesn't make it a book worthy of being read.
It might be true that the book actually has
no redeeming value.
Then again, it might be
wonderful and something that could change the world for the better.
I think what I object to most about Banned Books Week is the
tone the American Library Association takes when they promote it.
Firstly, they promote it as a fight for the
Hold on a second.
The First Amendment is about the government,
not about individuals.
government stops books from being published, then I will absolutely be
That's when a book is truly
Arguing that a book is
questionable in a classroom or library is hardly the same thing.
After all, let's say that a book is pulled from a public
If I want to read it, I can
still go to a local bookstore or on line to a bunch of sites and buy a copy for
myself possibly for as little as 3 or 4 dollars.
Yes, there are some people who won't go to
Yes, there are some people
who can't afford to do that.
still borrow the book from a friend.
There are still copies out there.
And yes, libraries make choices all the time.
I've never been in a library that bought
every book published in a year.
don't have the space or the budget for that.
Recently, the libraries in my town have gone completely independent from
all other libraries.
While there are
still lots of choices, there are some books that I've wanted to read that they
didn't have in their system.
I've had to
go out of my way to go to the county library system to get those books.
So to argue that a library system is
supporting all freedom is disingenuous just because size and budget already
limit what they have.
Not that I am criticizing librarians for the choices they
make at all.
I'm sure they put lots of
thought into what is chosen for their branches and the system in general.
No matter what they chose, there will be
people who object because book A wasn't bought or book B was.
I absolutely respect that.
But back to my original point.
According to stats on the ALA’s own site in
2011, 977 challenges out of 4,660 in the last 10 years were due to
"unsuited for age group."
So I am deemed a censor
if I object to my 1st grader being exposed to Twilight
or Harry Potter
Okay, okay, so I haven't heard of any cases
where that happened, and it is an extreme example.
But according to their definitions, it would
be on the list.
Think I'm exaggerating?
On another page back then, they had a definition of terms.
Several of their terms make sense.
Oral complaint or written complaint make
sense (someone challenging something verbally or in writing).
But then there are things like
"Expression of Concern" which is defined as "An inquiry that has
"Censorship - A change in the access status of material, based on the
content of the work and made by a governing authority or its
Such changes include
exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade lever changes."
So if a parents objects to their child
reading a book in 5th grade but is willing to let them read it in 7th grade,
that is censorship?
If a parent
successfully gets Twilight
the Children's section of the library to the Young Adult section, that's
Frankly, I find their definition of "expression of
concern" highly ironic, too.
Everything I ever read from the ALA
on Banned Books Week in any year I've looked is filled with judgmental overtones.
Honestly, I feel like they just want parents
to shut up and go away, and are trying to bully them into doing that.
Yes, I said bully.
That is what this feels like to me.
If you don't shut up and let the ALA
buy and display
books however they see fit, they are going to call you names.
One more stat from the ALA site from 2011.
No numbers are given, but they tell us that
"almost exactly 48%" of challenges come from parents.
They call this the majority of challenges,
and I'm willing to give them that since the only other stat they give is 10%
each for administrators and patrons, leaving the remaining 32% unaccounted
Again, however, I would argue that
parents have the right to monitor what their child reads or is exposed to,
especially if it is in the classroom.
Instead, the ALA
is setting them up as evil people, "censors," for doing their
I think it could even be argued
that the ALA
is trying to censor parents with this annual week by embarrassing them into
Honestly, the one thing I couldn't find in a quick internet
search on banned or challenged books was the stories behind some of these
Yes, they list the top 10
and the reasons given, but who objected?
Was the book in a library or a classroom?
Did the book stay on the shelf/assignment or
was it removed?
Those kind of details
might actually help me understand the concerns about this.
And, since I have been called names because I
objected to myself reading a book and never said anything about the rest of the
class, I get interested in those details.
Maybe we'll find that the "censors" are really more reasonable
than those promoting Banned Books Week are willing to admit.
Ironically enough, the only case of a book truly being banned happened a couple of years ago.
Someone wrote a picture book about George
Washington’s slaves making his birthday cake.
It has bad idea written
all over it, right?
Yet it somehow
almost got published.
A few days before
it was do to come out, someone started an internet campaign against the book,
and the publisher pulled it.
curious to read it, but there are only a very few copies there were sold
pre-release floating around out there and I never have tried too hard to get my
hands on a copy.
At the time, this was
touted as a wonderful thing that the book was pulled.
And I’m sure I would be agreeing with them if
I had read the book.
But I was never
given the chance.
Yet this book isn’t
one of the ones brought up during banned book week.
While she didn’t talk about this week in particular, my
reaction to everything surrounding the week is perfectly summarized in Kristen
Power’s book The Silencing
haven’t read it, I highly recommend it (here is my review
Her premise is that certain parts of American
culture are more interesting in shouting down those they disagree with than
trying to find common ground for compromise.
That to me is exactly what Banned Books Week as currently observed feels
Now here is where I might shock and surprise you.
I could see myself supporting Banned Books Week with a change of emphasis and tone.
What if we treated the week not as it is now but as a week to open a
dialog on banned and challenged books.
How about a forum of some kind where people can open a
dialog about the banned and challenged books?
This could be local or over the internet.
Those who object to the book can say why
without fear of being attacked or name called, something that is lacking from
every Banned Books Week to date.
who support the book can say why they like it, again without being attacked by
the other side.
Maybe no minds will be
But by actually discussing the
book in question from both sides, maybe we can reach an understanding and a
mutually agreed upon solution.
ask that both sides actually read the book first.
It is only fair to object to or defend
something you are familiar with.
all, I love Huckleberry Finn
think that those who object to the dated racial language don't get what Twain was
trying to do with the book. (I get into that more in my review of the book
After all, do we have anything to fear from an open and
I would argue no, but the
way Banned Books Week is celebrated now, we don't have that or the chance to have
And why do we have to be adversarial?
Why must this week be one side attacking the
Again, that does little to truly
examine what is going on with this issue in our country.
Maybe the other side of the issue isn't as
evil as we are making them out to be but has genuine concerns that can be
addressed without keeping others from enjoying the book.
More than anything, I would argue that as it stands now,
Banned Books Week does little to nothing to actually help with the true problem,
people's different standards for their kids (and to a lesser extent
themselves). So how can we go about
addressing those in a mature, responsible way?
I welcome your comments. In fact,
I would love to see what you have to say.
Just keep in mind that all name calling will be ignored.