It's Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate our rights to free and open access to information: our right to read. It's sort of a misnomer, as it's nearly impossible to get a book truly banned in the US these days. Books often get challenged by members of a community, and school boards and librarians follow a process to determine whether they are "appropriate" for a community or age group, or need to be moved or removed. (Find our policy under Collection Development here.)
Sometimes, I feel like these are legitimate concerns: I'd probably make a fuss if my third grader were assigned to read a YA novel with concepts they wouldn't fully be able to understand or process. And we have steps for that in most communities in this country. But there are other countries, and there have been other times, in which materials have been straight up banned, because of beliefs that the words that came together to make them were obscene, offensive, or even blasphemous.
Right now, it is illegal to supply, display, distribute or even give a friend a copy of the YA novel Into the River in New Zealand.
So let's play a game.
Were these books officially banned by the government? Or were they challenged?
Fewer than twenty years ago, a school board member called it a "filthy, filthy book." It's been removed from school libraries, and teachers have even been fired for assigning it!
While the protagonist himself is school-aged, many parents and community members were (and continue to be) not happy with his sexual activities and foul-mouthed anger at the world.
How, you might ask, does a picture book--for children--make it onto the list of most frequently challenged books for several years in a row? Well, you take two male penguins and you give them an egg to raise.
Salman Rushdie's award-winning novel about two men's gradual changes also features a long passage about the Prophet Muhammad and his wives.
While the West has lauded the novel, it was the West that had to protect Rushdie when the Ayatollah, the Supreme Leader of Iran called a fatwa--a religious edict and death sentence--on the author in 1989. The book has been both banned and burned in several countries.
The semi-autobiographical narrator of Absolutely True Diary curses a lot, talks about drugs and drinking, and depicts a life experience that some find realistic, and others find anti-family and culturally insensitive. Several school districts have removed it from both curricula and school libraries, or changed its age classification.
Published in 1918, not only was this book banned for obscenity in England in 1929, it was burned in several countries as well. Since then, it's gained literary status. Bloomsday is now celebrated across the globe.
Toni Morrison's debut novel has come up multiple times in book challenges, particularly in schools, when people feel the subject matter--along with that of most other Morrison novels--is inappropriate for even high school upperclassmen to explore, regardless of the fact that the book's characters are even younger.
They burned this one. A lot. In the sixty years following its release in 1939, it had been burned, banned and challenged in school districts, public libraries, and even caused booksellers to be put on trial in Turkey for possessing and selling it. It was removed from a high school library and then reinstated on a "restricted basis." The language itself caused a great deal of backlash, as well as a bit of sexual content.
The level of contention has gone down for this particular book as it has risen in the ranks of Great American Classic, but there are still those who would prefer not to see it on any assignment lists.
While we know that the comic series Saga was one of the most frequently challenged books of 2014, it is unclear in what communities those challenges were done. But it's the reasons that baffle me; sex and nudity I get (it's an adult-geared space opera that's illustrated in graphic novel format), but the number one challenge has been "anti-family," despite being about soldiers from two warring planets getting married and trying to keep their family together.
Sometimes it's not even the book that's the problem. Sure, there have been a few challenges here and there about the violence in the book--it is, certainly, a book about a domesticated animal who gets...undomesticated, and who has to deal with the harshness of such a raw experience. But the book was only banned in countries that took severe offense to Jack London's openly socialist leanings; so much that his books were among those burned by the Nazi party in the 1930s.
Earlier this year, Some Girls Are was removed from a summer reading list after a parent called the school to complain that it was "trash." The novel touches upon themes of sexual assault and high school socialization--particularly what happens when you realize the people you socialize with are truly horrible people.
In this case, there was a serious response from The Internet in which hundreds of copies of the book were then sent to the city's public library system, where any student who wished to read the book could get their own copy to keep.
And this, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. None of these books have been banned or challenged in Pima County, but it is happening all over the US at varying levels of call and response. Even as recently as 2001, books like The Lord of the Rings were being collected and burned by groups acting outside of school and library communities. Even Captain Underpants hasn't been able to escape this trial by fire.
This week is a time every year where we can come together and acknowledge the history of people's reaction to books they have deemed inappropriate, offensive, or filthy, and the steps we have made as a society to ensure that people--especially young people--are still able to exercise their rights to read them.
Want to research more on this topic in our e-library? Have a look at some Opposing Viewpoints on banned books.