Banned Books Week 2017: Support the freedom to read

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By Steve Zalusky

You may have encountered a book every once in a while that you not only disliked, but also found disgusting and even counter to your beliefs.  But would it every occur to you to try and prevent others from reading it?

Perhaps you have a book that you absolutely love, but others hate it so much that they would try to prevent you and others from obtaining it.

That these situations are not fantastic scenarios, difficult to imagine in today’s society, is proven by the number of book challenges reported to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).  A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.

More than 320 challenges were recorded by OIF in 2016, with many of the challenges having to do with language, depictions of LGBT characters, sexually explicit scenes and offensive political viewpoints. The 2016 list of top 10 challenged books also included a book found objectionable because of its author, comedian Bill Cosby.

But challenges have even impacted such unlikely seeming books as the Holy Bible.  These challenges, although seemingly benign to the challenger, represent a very real threat to our freedom to read. Challenges – and the threat they represent – are highlighted each year during Banned Books Week.

Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read. It brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers — in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

This year, the American Library Association will hold Banned Books Week Sept. 24 – 30.

Out of the hundreds of challenges ALA records every year, only about 10 percent of books are removed from the location where the challenge took place, thanks to local literary champions such as librarians, students, and patrons who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.

According to Jamie LaRue, director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), “Most of the book challenges (attempts to restrict or remove books from a library or school) that get reported to OIF) have to do with children. Some parents are very overprotective, and would rather try to shelter their children from the world than help them get ready for it. Increasingly, challenges also have to do with diversity – books that tell the stories of LGBT, cultural or religious minorities, and the disabled. But what better way to prepare for life, what better way to embrace the future and our communities, than to read and think about it all in advance?

ALA’s annual Banned Books Week makes a simple point. Americans have the freedom to read. That means that we have the freedom to grow: the willingness to ask questions, the courage to look at the answers, and the sheer intelligence to invest in the libraries that help us do that. Check out our page at Contribute to our Virtual Read-Outs. Pick up our awesome Words Have Power buttons and bookbags. Subscribe to our Journal Of Intellectual freedom and Privacy. Join our Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament. Or better yet: read a Banned Book.“

Librarians have been on the front lines in the fight for the freedom to read. When a parent at Marion High School in Lebanon, Kentucky, attempted to challenge John Green’s book “Looking for Alaska,” one of the Top 10 challenged books in 2016, from the school curriculum, it provoked a backlash from students, alumni, community members and even the book’s author.

Among those who defended the book was Jama Watts, genealogy librarian at the Marion County Public Library. She built a banned books display at the library that not only included Green’s books, but also such challenged titles as Dav Pilkey’s “The Adventures of Captain Underpants” and Peter Parnell’s “Tango Makes Three.”

In an interview with I Love Libraries, Watts said, “When we found out about it, we just kind of threw all of our support behind (teacher) Emily (Veatch).” In addition to the displays, Watts said, “We changed our front sign to ‘We support the freedom to read.’ Most of the buses go by the library on the way to the high school.”

Watts said she and several of her co-workers, including the young adult librarian attended the challenge meeting held by the school district.  She said, “We had great interactions with our patrons,” about the book display in the library. “People wanted to know why they were challenged. We would explain.”

Ultimately, the school district’s review committee voted to retain the book in the curriculum.

Watts said, “Intellectual freedom is something that we value. None of us are big on censorship. It was the right thing to do. it was the only thing to do to support (Emily) in the venture.”  Library users can follow Watts’ lead and join the fight for intellectual freedom.

The American Library Association invites you to help support the freedom to read during Banned Books Week by reading a banned or challenged book and speaking out against censorship.

You can join the Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament and challenge yourself to complete action items on Twitter to be entered into a drawing for fantastic literary prizes. Similar to the Triwizard Tournament in the banned and challenged Harry Potter series, these tasks will test your creativity and knowledge.

By tweeting any of the following action items using the hashtag #RebelReader during Banned Books Week (September 24-30), you can win an array of literary prizes:

  • Take a selfie with a banned or challenged book
  • Share a video of yourself talking about censorship or reading from a banned or challenged book
  • Post a quote from a favorite banned or challenged book
  • Share a story about an educator who helped you learn the power of words
  • Take a photo of a completed ALA Banned Books Week coloring sheet
  • Take a photo of yourself with any Words Have Power swag
  • Share a link to your local library’s homepage or book selection policy
  • Tweet some love at a banned book author from this list:

Find other ways to celebrate at  the ALA Banned Books Week website, and follow ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom Twitter account.