An Alternate Look at Banned Books Week

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Banned Books Week but
couldn’t really find the right words to say just what I think is wrong
about it. My blogging colleague and fellow reviewer, Mark Baker,
done a great job of expressing his—and my—misgivings.

Carstairs Considers….

Confessions of a Book Banner
The Bottom Line:

Freedom to read?  Good
So is freedom to object
Let’s balance the two

NOTE: This is an essay/editorial I originally wrote for Banned Books Week back in 2011.  I have gone through and made some minor tweaks and added a couple of paragraphs.  The stats may be outdated now as well, but I didn’t have the time to try to update that section.  I certainly still stand by the spirit of this essay.


Every year when Banned Books Week rolls around, my hackles go up.  It’s because, according to some definitions, I am a book banner.

When I was a junior in high school, my high school had posters that were up in display cases for a month at a time on various topics.  One month, the topic was banned books.  I very carefully read those posters to see what was being said.

At this point, 25 years later, the details are fuzzy.  I do remember that the poster that gave examples of situations where books were banned infuriated me, and I went home and ranted about it to my parents.  As I recall, there were five stories on this poster.  Four of them were of parents who had objected to various books in classrooms or school libraries – you know, the standard stuff you hear about.  In all four of these cases, the parents lost and the book stayed in the school library or their child was given an alternative assignment while the rest of the class read the book.

So what about the fifth case?  If I made you guess, I bet you’d come up with the title within five guesses – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  There are two reasons this book was different from the other four.  First, the challenge was brought by a teacher.  Second, the book actually was removed from the classrooms of the school.

So right there, I learned that parents are ignored and teachers are listened to.  That double standard bothered me.  At least it was included with the parents in this list.

I’m also bothered by the terms used.  All five of these were presented on the poster as banned books.  Yet only one was really banned, the one brought by the teacher.  I realize that, if you read the fine print, you’ll see that the list every year includes challenged and banned books.  But that’s not what is headlined.  Instead, we only talk about banned books, whether the book was actually banned or not.

But here’s the thing that bothered me even more.  In at least one of the instances where a parent objected to a book, they only objected to their kid being made to read the book.  They asked for and received an alternative assignment for their child.  And yet they were labeled a book banner.  No, I don’t remember the book in question.  I wish I did.

Believe me, there were several books I wish I hadn’t read in high school.  The one that immediately springs to mind is Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.  Even now, I am repulsed by some of the things in that book.  It’s shocking for shock sake and filled with unlikable characters.  Honestly, if I had an inkling what was in it before I started reading it, I would have asked for an alternative assignment.  By the time I realized just how foul it was, it would have been a pain for me and the teacher, so I just kept going.

Does this make me a book banner?

I did opt out of a book later that year – the infamous Catcher in the Rye.  Yes, I did check the book out of the library and read the first few pages on my own before we were due to start it, so I had some clue what I was talking about when I objected to the language in it.  Instead, I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which remains one of my favorite books read in high school.  I did sit in on class, so I got some of the themes of the book (although like several other books we read that year, I don’t remember much anymore).

Does this make me a book banner?  According to some definitions, it does, as noted above.

Before we go any further, I want to be clear on something.  I have absolutely no problems with parents objecting to something their child is being exposed to in the classroom, and this goes for movies as well as books.  (Yes, I was shown R rated films in high school by teachers when I was not yet old enough to see them.)  A child has to be in the classroom, but ultimately, it is the parent’s right and responsibility to raise the child however they see fit.  It is not the right of the teacher or school to raise the child.  That’s why this issue always resonates so strongly with me.  When parents are being called banners or censors because they object to something for their own child and their child alone, that is wrong.

I am more conflicted about contents of school libraries.  A parent should be monitoring what a child reads at home, but a book could be checked out of a school library and left at school.  If that happens, then the parent would have no idea their child was reading it.  Since the book is still chosen by the student, I am less certain of how I stand on this one.

When it comes to public libraries, I feel most challenges should be just that, challenges.  Parents should be monitoring what their child reads and checks out from a public library.  Removing a book from a public library because it offends you does bother me, even in the case of books that I don’t think should have been published in the first place.

And let’s be clear on this point, too.  What you find objectionable, I might not.  I fully realize that if we let every parent pick every book used in a classroom, there might be nothing left (although that is a slippery slope argument, something I learned is a fallacy in my college logic class).  Still, just because a book is challenged doesn’t make it a book worthy of being read.  It might be true that the book actually has no redeeming value.  Shocking thought.  Then again, it might be wonderful and something that could change the world for the better.

I think what I object to most about Banned Books Week is the tone the American Library Association takes when they promote it.  Firstly, they promote it as a fight for the First Amendment.  Hold on a second.  The First Amendment is about the government, not about individuals.  When the government stops books from being published, then I will absolutely be outraged.  That’s when a book is truly banned.  Arguing that a book is questionable in a classroom or library is hardly the same thing.

After all, let’s say that a book is pulled from a public library.  If I want to read it, I can still go to a local bookstore or on line to a bunch of sites and buy a copy for myself possibly for as little as 3 or 4 dollars.  Yes, there are some people who won’t go to that trouble.  Yes, there are some people who can’t afford to do that.  They can still borrow the book from a friend.  There are still copies out there.

And yes, libraries make choices all the time.  I’ve never been in a library that bought every book published in a year.  They don’t have the space or the budget for that.  Recently, the libraries in my town have gone completely independent from all other libraries.  While there are still lots of choices, there are some books that I’ve wanted to read that they didn’t have in their system.  I’ve had to go out of my way to go to the county library system to get those books.  So to argue that a library system is supporting all freedom is disingenuous just because size and budget already limit what they have.

Not that I am criticizing librarians for the choices they make at all.  I’m sure they put lots of thought into what is chosen for their branches and the system in general.  No matter what they chose, there will be people who object because book A wasn’t bought or book B was.  I absolutely respect that.

But back to my original point.  According to stats on the ALA’s own site in 2011, 977 challenges out of 4,660 in the last 10 years were due to “unsuited for age group.”  That’s 21%.  So I am deemed a censor if I object to my 1st grader being exposed to Twilight or Harry Potter.  Okay, okay, so I haven’t heard of any cases where that happened, and it is an extreme example.  But according to their definitions, it would be on the list.

Think I’m exaggerating?  On another page back then, they had a definition of terms.  Several of their terms make sense.  Oral complaint or written complaint make sense (someone challenging something verbally or in writing).  But then there are things like “Expression of Concern” which is defined as “An inquiry that has judgmental overtones.”  And “Censorship – A change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives.  Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade lever changes.”  So if a parents objects to their child reading a book in 5th grade but is willing to let them read it in 7th grade, that is censorship?  If a parent successfully gets Twilight moved from the Children’s section of the library to the Young Adult section, that’s censorship?

Frankly, I find their definition of “expression of concern” highly ironic, too.  Everything I ever read from the ALA on Banned Books Week in any year I’ve looked is filled with judgmental overtones.  Honestly, I feel like they just want parents to shut up and go away, and are trying to bully them into doing that.  Yes, I said bully.  That is what this feels like to me.  If you don’t shut up and let the ALA buy and display books however they see fit, they are going to call you names.

One more stat from the ALA site from 2011.  No numbers are given, but they tell us that “almost exactly 48%” of challenges come from parents.  They call this the majority of challenges, and I’m willing to give them that since the only other stat they give is 10% each for administrators and patrons, leaving the remaining 32% unaccounted for.  Again, however, I would argue that parents have the right to monitor what their child reads or is exposed to, especially if it is in the classroom.  Instead, the ALA is setting them up as evil people, “censors,” for doing their job.  I think it could even be argued that the ALA is trying to censor parents with this annual week by embarrassing them into silence.

Honestly, the one thing I couldn’t find in a quick internet search on banned or challenged books was the stories behind some of these challenges.  Yes, they list the top 10 and the reasons given, but who objected?  Was the book in a library or a classroom?  Did the book stay on the shelf/assignment or was it removed?  Those kind of details might actually help me understand the concerns about this.  And, since I have been called names because I objected to myself reading a book and never said anything about the rest of the class, I get interested in those details.  Maybe we’ll find that the “censors” are really more reasonable than those promoting Banned Books Week are willing to admit.

Ironically enough, the only case of a book truly being banned happened a couple of years ago.  Someone wrote a picture book about George Washington’s slaves making his birthday cake.  Seriously.  It has bad idea written all over it, right?  Yet it somehow almost got published.  A few days before it was do to come out, someone started an internet campaign against the book, and the publisher pulled it.  I’d be curious to read it, but there are only a very few copies there were sold pre-release floating around out there and I never have tried too hard to get my hands on a copy.  At the time, this was touted as a wonderful thing that the book was pulled.  And I’m sure I would be agreeing with them if I had read the book.  But I was never given the chance.  Yet this book isn’t one of the ones brought up during banned book week.

While she didn’t talk about this week in particular, my reaction to everything surrounding the week is perfectly summarized in Kristen Power’s book The Silencing.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it (here is my review).  Her premise is that certain parts of American culture are more interesting in shouting down those they disagree with than trying to find common ground for compromise.  That to me is exactly what Banned Books Week as currently observed feels like.

Now here is where I might shock and surprise you.  I could see myself supporting Banned Books Week with a change of emphasis and tone.  What if we treated the week not as it is now but as a week to open a dialog on banned and challenged books.

How about a forum of some kind where people can open a dialog about the banned and challenged books?  This could be local or over the internet.  Those who object to the book can say why without fear of being attacked or name called, something that is lacking from every Banned Books Week to date.  Those who support the book can say why they like it, again without being attacked by the other side.  Maybe no minds will be changed.  But by actually discussing the book in question from both sides, maybe we can reach an understanding and a mutually agreed upon solution.  I would ask that both sides actually read the book first.  It is only fair to object to or defend something you are familiar with.  After all, I love Huckleberry Finn and think that those who object to the dated racial language don’t get what Twain was trying to do with the book. (I get into that more in my review of the book.)

After all, do we have anything to fear from an open and honest debate?  I would argue no, but the way Banned Books Week is celebrated now, we don’t have that or the chance to have that.

And why do we have to be adversarial?  Why must this week be one side attacking the other?  Again, that does little to truly examine what is going on with this issue in our country.  Maybe the other side of the issue isn’t as evil as we are making them out to be but has genuine concerns that can be addressed without keeping others from enjoying the book.

More than anything, I would argue that as it stands now, Banned Books Week does little to nothing to actually help with the true problem, people’s different standards for their kids (and to a lesser extent themselves).  So how can we go about addressing those in a mature, responsible way?  I welcome your comments.  In fact, I would love to see what you have to say.  Just keep in mind that all name calling will be ignored.

Carstairs Considers….