I am not a conspiracy nut. I don’t believe I am being watched ALL the time, and I try not to think about what they put in our food. But I am pretty sure that books disappear from the shelves, unless we say something. People never believe you when you maintain that censorship could and does happen. “Book banning here? This is America,” they scoff.
Maybe actual bans are rare in the United States, but it is not for lack of trying. On average, there are about 500 book challenges a year in American libraries, according to the American Library Association. This number goes up or down depending on the political climate and what side of the bed the censors get up on.
That’s why we need Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by a number of book-loving organizations including the ALA to a) celebrate the freedom to read, and b) draw attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.
Banned Books Week is always held during the last week in September, when kids are just starting to hit the books again and parents have more time to read. Here are a few examples of books challenged in 2010-2011 and why:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: A parent claimed that it gave her 11-year-old daughter nightmares and could numb other children to the effects of violence.
- What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Boys: A Guide for Parents and Sons: Banned in 21 schools in Texas after a parent complained. It contains definitions of rape, incest, sexual assault, and intercourse.
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Challenged in Republic, MO, schools because it is “soft pornography” and “glorifies drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.”
I have followed the topic of censorship for years as I researched my own novel Book of Mercy. Most censors object to books because of sex, violence, swearing, and “to protect children.” But other times, their reasons are just silly. I used actual challenged books and the actual reasons for their challenges as part of the story in Book of Mercy. (Yes, sometimes you can’t make up this stuff.) Here’s an excerpt in which Study Club President Irene Crump identifies books that should be banned in Mercy:
“The Stupids Step Out,” Irene said. “Describes families in a derogatory manner and might encourage children to disobey their parents.”
Arabella huffed in disgust. “That’s an absurd name for a family, fictional or otherwise. What if Tolstoy had called her Anna Idiot instead of Anna Karenina?”
Arabella got no argument from Irene, who constantly fought the battle for eloquent language with her own children. She thought “suck” should be something you did with a straw, not a description of your homework. . . .
Irene went on to another book. “A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. Encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them . . .”
Julie cleared her throat and attempted a half-hearted smile. “Irene, surely when you were a child, you too hated doing the dishes.”
Irene peered over her glasses at Julie. “We had a maid for that. Even so, there is never an excuse to take a hammer to the Wedgewood.”
America is a free society. Those of us who abhor censorship have to tolerate those who enjoy it, and vice versa. That’s how we know we are free. We have this system of checks and balances. But it is never safe to fall asleep at the wheel.
So be vigilant. Rock Banned Books Week, wear an “I Read Banned Books” button, read something someone else considers salacious.
Whatever you do, just don’t sit there. Give books a chance.
Excellent points. When I was in teacher’s college, we learned about how books may not be banned per se, but a “chilly climate” will be encouraged, whereby teachers will be encouraged to avoid certain books lest they put their jobs in jeopardy. Censors don’t need to go through the messy legal hassle of actually getting a book banned — they can just bully anyone who might be open to reading it/talking about it into avoiding the book instead. The book isn’t banned, oh no, all for free speech here, but mysteriously no-one seems to want to sell it or make it available at libraries.
It’s not just books that are aimed at/for kids either. As a full-time teacher I was warned to hide my commuter novel (classic science fiction, in case you were wondering) and that I should only read books that “the kids will like”. Shouldn’t I be a role model and show that adults read books for pleasure too? No, I was told. That wasn’t “connecting with the kids”.
I quit teaching twelve years ago and have never looked back.
I am sorry that you quit teaching because you sound like you were a good teacher. Stealth censorship like you describe is alive and well. Unfortunately. As for connecting with kids, I disagree with the notion that you can’t connect with kids unless you read what kids like. Kids need to see adult reading all kinds of books from YA to sci-fi to War and Peace. It is not important what you read, but THAT you read. It breaks my heart when a kid states proudly, “I hate to read.”