What do the Bible, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Adventures of Captain Underpants have in common? All of these books have been banned: the Bible was not allowed in the USSR between 1926 and 1956; China banned Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham from 1965 to 1991; and Captain Underpants beat out Fifty Shades of Grey for the most banned book in America in 2012.
According to the American Library Association (ALA), numerous challenges arise each year in an effort to remove certain material from libraries or school curricula or to restrict the use of these materials. In 2016, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 323 challenges; since 1990, when the ALA first started to record book challenges, there have been 17,700 attempts to remove or restrict materials from libraries and schools.
Eight of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2016 were written for or about children and young adults. Since parents represent the largest percentage of those who challenge books, it is not surprising that children’s and young adult genres would be the most targeted.
But who institutes these challenges? In the case of babies and preschoolers, parents are the “cultural gatekeepers” of their children. As children grow older and choose their own reading material, parents may become aware of “questionable” language or content and impose their beliefs on their children. They voice their reservations and complaints to schools and libraries, challenges are issued, and books may or may not be banned from the shelves or the classroom. Librarians and school administrators often feel pressure to remove a book, so the ban on a book may occur only in the location where the challenge takes place. About 10 percent of challenges ultimately result in a book’s removal from a school or facility.
Books are most often considered inappropriate for children when they contain controversial topics. In 2016, that was the case in virtually all of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books. In movies, television, video games, and music, everyone knows that sex sells. Books are not immune. Eight books were cited for sexual content or sexually explicit language in 2016. For the first time ever, a book was challenged because of its author: The Day I Saw My Father Cry by Bill Cosby was challenged due to criminal sexual allegations against Cosby.
“Diverse content” accounts for 52 percent of books challenged or banned in the last 10 years. Five of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2016 were challenged because of LGBT content (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). George, a children’s book, was removed from an elementary school library because it includes a transgender child; similarly, the children’s picture book I Am Jazz was challenged and removed because it features a transgender child. Two young adult novels, Drama and This One Summer, were banned for their inclusion of LGBT characters and other themes and topics deemed offensive to the challengers.
But how concerned should people be about books that contain diverse content – that is, books that explore subjects such as sexual orientation and gender identity, race, religion, disabilities, and mental illness? If stories are to be relevant for readers – no matter their age – they must depict the different cultures and life experiences that children and young adults encounter in everyday life.
Sensitive Subjects Are Not New
When the children’s literature business debuted in the 1820s, even then there was the question as to what audience should or would actually drive the industry – parents and adult caregivers or young readers themselves. Early on, children had very little input as to what they read; adults simply chose books and magazines without worrying much about whether they were interesting to their children. Even as publishers of reading materials became more focused on entertaining their readers, they were careful to avoid subjects that angered the parents who actually bought the books.
Finding a way to present sensitive subjects, especially to younger children, has always been problematic. Children’s literature during the 19th century rarely discussed slavery; one of the only publications that did so folded within 18 months. While it is easy now to recognize that slavery is a topic that must be presented from a historically accurate perspective and in a culturally appropriate manner, other subjects are less predictable when it comes to what is objectionable in some people’s eyes.
As one can determine from the most challenged books of 2016, books about sexuality and race lead to greater incidence of censorship than do books containing elements of violence and extreme fantasy. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are still two of the most controversial and often banned books; as recently as 2016, the novels were temporarily removed from the schools of an entire district in Virginia because of concerns of one parent about how the issue of race is treated in the books. Complaints from parents who complain about sexual and racial content are regularly lodged against Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved.
Reading Books Decreases as Children Get Older
Even when well-intentioned, challenges to works of literature raise an important question. In a time when children and young adults are reading less and less, should they be restricted from reading what is meaningful and interesting to them? Between infancy and the age of four, children are read to by their parents, so it is no surprise that books and reading time are the most pleasurable activity for them. When they are between the ages of five and seven, children are learning to read for themselves, and books are still on the top of the list of what interests this age group. By the time children are 11 years old, however, books fall to sixth place, after electronics and sports. For teens aged 14 to 17, books fall off the list entirely; 45 percent of 17-year-olds admit that they read for pleasure only once or twice a year.
Children are not the only demographic who read less now than in the past – about one-fourth of adults say they haven’t read a book in the last year. In the face of such eye-opening and even alarming statistics, one annual national event celebrates the freedom to read whatever books one chooses. For 30 years, Banned Books Week has brought 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.”
When reading materials are challenged or banned, their removal from a curriculum or a library restricts the access of all others to the materials, thus threatening the freedoms of choice and speech.
Banned Books Week
For 35 years, the American Library Association has promoted Banned Books Week, an awareness campaign that celebrates the freedom to read. This year, the theme for the upcoming event (September 24-September 30, 2017) is “Words Have Power. Read a Banned Book.” Janet Robinson, reference manager of the Aiken County Public Library (ACPL), noted, “The ACPL will observe Banned Books Week throughout the month of September 2017 by displaying challenged books in the library’s display case on the second floor, along with copies of banned or challenged titles available to be checked out with a library card. The observance of Banned Books Week each year reminds us that our freedom to read shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
Readers may be surprised at some of the banned books on display. The Harry Potter series has been challenged for its treatment of the occult and satanic themes. John Green’s award-winning
young adult novel Looking for Alaska contains profanity and sexually explicit scenes. And it is ironic that Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is one of America’s most challenged books, since it is about a futuristic society in which books are outlawed and burned.
The Aiken-Bamberg-Barnwell-Edgefield (ABBE) Regional Library System has had 17 challenges to library books and DVDs from 2003 – 2013. There have been no requests for reconsideration of any items since 2013.
According to Mary Jo Dawson, ABBE Regional Library Director, “ABBE’s mission is to provide an impartial environment in which people and their ideas are brought together with the universe of ideas and information. The inclusion of materials in our collection is not an endorsement of their content. We recognize that some materials are controversial and that any given item may offend some patrons. However, only individuals can determine what is appropriate for themselves and their family’s needs.”
Readers can find more information about who challenges books and where they are challenged at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/statistics. To view a video on the Top 10 Challenged Books of 2016, visit the ALA website www.ala.org/bbooks/NLW-Top10.
Lily McCullough Baumil received a degree in French from the College of Charleston and a Masters degree in English from the Citadel. After retiring from a 35-year teaching career in Charleston and Aiken, she published two books— Lord, What Shall I Say to Them for Thee?, a compilation of her father’s (The Rev. John McCullough) sermons, and Crime in Carcassonne, a mystery set in the walled medieval town of Carcassonne, France. She is currently writing a biography of Sarah Pressley Watson from Ridge Spring, SC. Ms. Baumil serves as a volunteer Guardian ad Litem for Aiken County. She has two children and three grandchildren and is married to Barry Tompkins.