Monday, October 1, 2012

Banned Books Week

I've written about it pretty much everywhere else; I might as well write about it here... It's Banned Books Week!

That's kind of a misnomer (kind of) because in America, you don't really see books banned. They might be pulled from a school's curriculum or removed from a library's shelves, but even that isn't really banning a book. It's those tricky little freedoms we have, like speech and expression and press and information.

The politically correct term would be Challenged Books Week, because Americans are all about challenging books, apparently.

While the ALA does not claim to be comprehensive in their reporting of book challenges, they try to get as close as possible. They counted 326 challenges in 2011. That's down a little from 348 in 2010, and a lot from 460 in 2009... that's more than one per day! The most challenges they counted in the past decade was in 2004, with 547 challenges (one more than the 546 in 2006).

I am happy to have discovered that 2011 was the first year since 2001 that none of the top ten most-challenged books were listed for the reason "homosexuality." And Tango Makes Three usually was the one book listed for that reason, but it dropped off the list entirely in 2011, after a record four first-place most-challenged spots (2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010).

Typically, books are challenged for being unsuitable to an age group, but that usually isn't the reason listed. Reasons like "offensive language" and "sexually explicit" and "violence" are cited. (I'd really like to know what the "insensitivity" is that Brave New World is accused of. I have some guesses, but it's an unusual way to complain about it.) But the problem is that the real issue is that it's offensive language or sexually explicit content being given to the wrong person. Most book challengers are asking for the books to be removed from school reading lists or school libraries. Schools are more likely to cave to this sort of pressure than public or academic* libraries, too, because they are responsible for the welfare of minors, and it can get touchy. They'd rather be safe than sorry, and unfortunately, that means that a lot of kids are stuck reading the same boring classics over and over. Yes, anything by Shakespeare has a lot of violence in it, and yes, it is really ironic that they are usually still allowed to read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, but some of the best writing being done right now is by YA authors, and teens shouldn't be missing out on that.

*School libraries refer to K-12 schools. Academic means college or university libraries. I know that can be confusing, so I thought I should clarify.

This is why you don't see books like The Anarchist's Cookbook on the list of the top ten challenged books for any year. No curriculum or school library is including the how-to book on making bombs and other dangerous items. And let's give the librarians a little credit, shall we? When I search for The Anarchist's Cookbook in WorldCat (which searches the catalog of every library in the world... for the most part) I get one result. One library in the world that owns that book. (If you're curious, it's Bowling Green State University.)

Another problem - a big problem - is that the people challenging the books won't read them first. If you flip to a random page of To Kill a Mockingbird, you're probably going to find something racist. It's kind of a huge point of the book. Just because the book uses "the n-word" doesn't mean it condones the use of it. In fact, it spends a great deal of pages explaining (in a literary, not didactic way) why it's bad to be racist. (It's been a while since I've read that book, but this is what I remember from it. If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me.)

That's why I'm such a champion of Banned Books Week. You can't let other people being upset about a book being read by their child influence your experience by not allowing you to read it either. I think every one of my favorite books - and all the books that have helped me shape my ideas and viewpoints and opinions and personal characteristics - have a sex scene or a bad word or a violent plot point or nudity or something religious or racist or "insensitive" in them.

So I'll step down off my soapbox and come up with something more fun to talk about next time. In the meantime, saunter over to Cassy's and my new blow, Review Me Twice, and see what else we have to say about Banned Books Week.

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