An Eye on Censorship

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An Op-Ed by Kent Oliver
Chair of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and executive director of the Stark County District Library in Canton, Ohio

Within a week very recently, two similar tales were unfolding publicly in different parts of the country.

In Mississippi, a high-schooler is holding on to her school library's copy of Ellen Wittlinger’s young adult novel Sandpiper.

In Lewiston, Maine, a parent refuses to return Robie Harris' acclaimed sex education book It's Perfectly Normal.

It's the bane of nearly every library's existence – too many books aren't returned by their due date.  There's a litany of reasons for this: forgetfulness, lack of concern or, often, sincere attachment to or interest in the publication. 

Unfortunately, there's another, more disconcerting reason some people don’t return their books.  They don't think anyone else should read them.

In Mississippi, the student felt Sandpiper went against the school's teaching of abstinence before marriage, while in Maine, the woman found It's Perfectly Normal's illustrations "amoral" and "abnormal."  Both felt their communities were better off without those ideas or images.

These experiences show us that the impulse to restrict materials remains strong.  There are those who believe that our society is safer or otherwise better off when our access to information is limited.  In fact, librarians know the opposite to be true: well-informed people are free people; education is a crucial component to success.  Libraries providing a wide range of information across the breadth of public opinion provide everyone with the opportunity to become a well-informed, independent-minded citizen – the bedrock of our democratic society.

When a book is challenged, burned, or not returned because of the ideas contained in it, our freedom to choose what to read for ourselves and our families is hampered.  In 2006, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom received reports of 546 challenges to materials in school and public libraries.  (ALA estimates that approximately 75% of all challenges are not reported to ALA.)  Books are challenged everywhere in the country for all sorts of reasons, including religion, sex, violence, and controversial political ideas.

Fortunately, a good number of these challenges are unsuccessful, thanks in part to communities rallying around the principle that our First Amendment right to access information is sacrosanct.  In Maine, both libraries ordered extra copies of It’s Perfectly Normal to keep up with newfound demand.  In Mississippi, a committee has been formed to review Sandpiper and make a recommendation.  The county's library media coordinator, Jane Smith, has staunchly defended the book in media interviews. 

This week (September 29-October 6) is Banned Books Week, an opportunity for Americans to celebrate our freedom to read.  All over the country, libraries, schools, and community organizations are holding events, sponsoring exhibits, and presenting programs to shed light on the issue of censorship.

I hope you will use Banned Books Week as an opportunity to pick up a book or two you might not have otherwise read.  Think about the ideas presented.  Talk to your friends about them.  Find out what your local library or bookstore is doing for Banned Books Week.  Learn more about libraries, books, and censorship by visiting www.ala.org/bbooks.

And celebrate, joyously, your freedom to read. 

2006 Most Challenged Books (out of 546 books)

And Tango Makes Three - Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Gossip Girls series - Cecily Von Ziegesar
Alice series - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things - Carolyn Mackler
The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison
Scary Stories series - Alvin Schwartz
Athletic Shorts - Chris Crutcher
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier

Grounds for Challenge

And Tango Makes Three - Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Homosexuality, anti-family, and unsuited to age group.

Gossip Girls Series - Cecily Von Ziegesar
homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, and unsuited to age group

Alice Series - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
sexually explicit and offensive language

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things - Carolyn Mackler
sexually explicit, anti-family, offensive language, unsuited to age group

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison
Sexually explicit, offensive language, and unsuited to age group

Scary Stories Series - Alvin Schwartz
occult/Satanism, unsuited to age group, violence, insensitivity

Athletic Shorts - Chris Crutcher
homosexuality and offensive language

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

Beloved - Toni Morrison
Sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group

The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier
sexually explicit, violence, offensive language

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrate your Freedom to Read during Banned Books Week
September 29 – October 6, 2007

Banned Books Week Poster 2007

This year marks the 26th observance of Banned Books Week, the annual celebration of our First Amendment freedoms to read, publish and express ideas and opinions of all kinds. Sponsored by the American Library Association, American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, and the National Association of College Stores, Banned Books Week reminds everyone not to take our precious democratic freedoms for granted.

If you think book bannings don't happen in America anymore, think again. In 2006 alone, 546 books were challenged or banned in U.S. public libraries and schools - and those are just the ones that are reported to ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). We estimate that only 20-25% of all challenges are reported to the ALA or reported in the media.

A challenge -- an attempt to remove a book from a library or school, or halt the sale of a book -- can take many forms. Most often a parent or citizen will file a formal, written complaint with a school or library. The school or library then considers the complaint and makes a decision based on its policies and the merits of the complaint. Once in a while, an administrator or an official will circumvent due process and unilaterally remove a book because of community pressure. In other communities, would-be censors take more direct action and actually burn or destroy books in a public place to make a symbolic statement.

Banned Books Week is now a major event that is observed across the United States. Libraries, schools, booksellers, and community organizations are holding events, sponsoring exhibits, and presenting programs to shed light on the issue of censorship. In Chicago, near ALA headquarters, we are sponsoring a "Read-Out!" on Saturday, September 29. There, some of the most frequently challenged authors, including Chris Crutcher, Carolyn Mackler, Sonya Sones, and Robie Harris, will be reading from their favorite banned or challenged books. One can also celebrate Banned Books Week on MySpace and in Second Life, where we're hosting a series of events centered around this year’s pirate theme -- "Ahoy! Treasure Your Freedom to Read!" (Click here for a map showing events in your area.)

We hope you'll use Banned Books Week as an opportunity to pick up a book or two you might not have otherwise read. Think about the ideas presented. Talk to your friends about them. Find out what your local library or bookstore is doing for Banned Books Week. Learn more about libraries, books, and censorship by visiting www.ala.org/bbooks.

 

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