The American Library Assocation regularly promotes and celebrates Banned Books Week. As the ALA notes on its site, Banned Books Week (BBW) "celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and 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 these two essential conditions are met."
When I teach Children's Literature and Adolescent, I do talk about Banned Books Week, but also what seems to be the premises or thinking behind challenging books or banning books. I ask my students to investigate the censorship policies at the public libraries and the school libraries because I want them capable of making their own decisions about censorship, about challening books, about banning books. I don't want them to accept anyone else's thinking, including mine.
The 10 most challenged books in 2007 have been listed numerous times, and I'll list them again:
- And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
- The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
- Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- TTYL by Lauren Myracle
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The ALA keeps track of challenged and banned books, but also the reason books have been challenged. The reasons for the 2007 books can be found here.
There is a difference between a book being challenged and a book being banned, but not much. A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict a book from public access. When a book has been banned, you might assume the challenge has been successful.
But I believe readers must be careful about saying anyone should have any access to any book though that takes me down a slightly different road of what might be appropriate or accessible to readers. Classroom teachers seem to give a lot of credence to what is "age appropriate." They have reasons for that, of course, but the parameters often seem arbitrary or without any latitude. Reading teachers, for example, focus on age appropriate vocabulary, which is one of the reasons Doreen Cronin's delightful Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type is not always encouraged as a book for young or emerging readers. It's got a few big words in it that might not be "age appropriate." But that's a diatribe for a different time.
Having said that, however, I do believe that some books are not appropriate for some readers. I think anyone recommending books to children or young readers have to be discerning about the reader to whom the book is being recommended. I'm cautious with some of my recommendations for some of my adult friends; why would I be less careful with students and kids? So here's my taken on this top 10 list:
- I've not read And Tango Makes Three. I wouldn't use it for my Children's Lit class because I teach at Wheaton College and it could be problematic. I'll mention it and let my students decide for themselves. As for the premise: there are gay couples in the real world; there are gay couples in the real world who have real children and are excellent parents. It's entirely possible this book will help someone think through their own preconceptions, ideas, whatever about whatever bugs them about this book. There's another blog post in that, too.
- I hated The Chocolate War. I thought it was a terrible book and not just because of the conclusion, though that played a key part in my dislike of the book. I taught it a few semesters in Adolescent Literature because I thought I was being too narrow-minded about the book, but none of my students liked it and none of my friends liked it so I'd challenge it simply because I think it's a stupid book.
- I haven't read Olive's Ocean book, nor have I read The Golden Compass so I can't comment.
- Poor Huck. Twain's classic has been tagged with racism for a very long time. I wonder how many of the people who have tried to ban this book have actually read this book or paid any attention to the context of the writing or know anything about the author.
- The Color Purple is an extraordinary book. I do remember one incident when I used it in an African-American Literature class. One of my students something to this effect, "I do wish you'd warned us about the self-love parts." I almost laughed but she was earnest. The students went on to tell me they just liked to be warned that there may be some elements that might make them uncomfortable. For all of their apparent worldliness, it's important to remember that college kids are just college kids. I appreciated her comment and, from then on, gave students a heads up. I developed my own sort of warning system by telling them there is "earthy" language (a colleague used that term to describe Anne Lamott's writing) and there are elements of sexuality. Depending on the students and the book, I might give them a rating of 1 to 5 on the sexual elements.
- TTYL. This is abook that should never have been published. The worst thing is that there are others: TTFN and l8r, g8r. The first was quaint using text messaging as it's motif, but the characters are shallow and insipid, the plot is dorky, and the whole book is just dreck. I went to her web site and was horrified to learn she's written a lot of book. Sheesh. Really? Someone keeps publishing that junk? Wow. Scary. I think her books should be banned because they are an affront to anything remotely literary.
- I love I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and this is another book I think people reacted to without considering its context or purpose.
- I haven't read Robie's book, but it looks like a non-fiction book about growing into adolescence, but based on what I've seen of it, I can imagine why some people have challenged it. I'm going to guess that those are the same folks who cannot bring themselves to say "penis" or "vagina," who claim to want their children to think of their bodies and the functions of the body as something normal, but who cannot talk about any of those functions without gettting embarrassed. I might not agree with Robie's take on some of what he says, but I can see how such a book might be helpful for the conversation that far too many parents are reluctant to have with their kids. And if their kids don't learn something remotely close to the truth about their bodies and sex from their parents, they're going to find out from their friends and through experimentation. That, as we all know, is too often a recipe for disaster.
- I liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I've blogged about it (freestylebooks.blogspot.com). The reasons it has been challenged are: "Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group." I get why some folks get all nervous about real life intruding in their fiction, but I don't understand why this book is considered unsuitable for the age group. Charlie, the protagonist, is in high school. High school is a tough place these days, even in towns that believe themselves to be idyllic and immune. Maybe it's because Charlie reads The Catcher in the Rye and becomes friends with a group involved in productions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There could be a lot of reasons to be concerned about this book, but I love the fact that it enables kids to talk about high school and how hard it can be just to get through a day, never mind attend class and actually learn something.
I'm not a fan of banning books. I am a fan of using discernment in making recommendations and making sure that all readers know what they like and why they like it. The inverse is also true. I want my students to know why they don't like something and I ask them for concrete reasons.
If the sex makes them uncomfortable, fine. I can respect that. If the theme or topic makes them uncomfortable and they can tell me why, I can respect that too. But having them figure out why they don't like a particular book makes them more informed about themselves as readers and as citizens of the world.
Informed readers are welcome to ban books from their own shelves and their own reading for their own reasons. Just don't tell me what I can't read and why I can't read it.