Tuesday, April 12, 2011


A friend recently tweeted me the link to a list of the 10 most banned books in the US as reported by the American Library Association. I took a look and wondered what it suggested about our cultural values given the books that were banned and the desire by some to limit other people's rights to choice.  Before we get to the list I want to delineate an important difference between making choices for yourself and your children and imposing your beliefs on everyone else.

Banning is not about exercising a personal choice. It is not about parental decisions. As a mom, there are texts (books, video games, movies) that my husband and I have looked carefully at for our son. We understand this process to be an important parental responsibility.  But I can assure that we do not look at what your child is reading, viewing, or playing. Nor do we try to make schools or libraries restrict a text because we don't care for it. Banning is about someone or some entity who believes they are superior to you and therefore must speak for you and in doing so limits your right to access a text.  These groups are not new. Consider that the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) in 1921 had The Little Review banned because it had published serialized sections of James Joyce's Ulysses.  It was decided by a court that the magazine was obscene and  as a result the book was not allowed in the United States. It is not until 1933 when Random House pushed the issue by having a copy of the book brought to the States from France, that U.S. District Judge John Woolsey ruled that James Joyce's Ulysses was neither obscene nor pornographic. The novel was allowed in the country.  I know of no novel I have read that matches Ulysses for its beauty, complexity, intensity, and use of language--a text many contend is the greatest literary work of the 20th Century.  The NYSSV in their small-minded ignorance determined that its role was as supervisor of the public's morality.

Times have not changed.  Whereas the NYSSV, a Christian group,  is no longer active, other groups have taken its place.

I have first hand knowledge of what happens when a group seeks to restrict access to a text. In one school district I was employed as the Humanities Supervisor. There the Board of Education chose to remove all copies of Bette Greene's The Drowning of Stephan Jones and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye from high school English classrooms.  I defended the books to the board committee.  Two main reasons were given for restricting the texts:
1. The Drowning of Stephan Jones was removed from classrooms because a character who is gay is killed and a similar event had happened in the town years earlier. It was explained that a teenager thought to be gay had suspiciously drowned. It was decided that it would be better to not trigger such a memory via the text.
2. Morrison's The Bluest Eye was removed from senior high school English classrooms because the committee believed that reading the book might trigger a memory of sexual abuse and a teenager might not be able to handle that memory and harm herself.

In a room with four board members, an assistant superintendent and myself, I was the only one who had actually read any of the texts under question. No one else had read the books, but all felt that having been told about the books and in some cases skimmed the books, that they could determine rightful action.  I was able to convince the assistant superintendent and board to not ban the books, but to relocate them from classroom libraries to the high school's library.  They agreed.  The drama elicited by the process ensured that teens borrowed both books from the library in droves. The book restrictions, along with attacks on teaching evolution that I also had to defend occurred because of a small, but well organized group that self-described itself as The Gathering Christians had gained majority membership on the school board.

Do We Support Banning Books?
In a recent Harris Poll, 73% of liberals, 60% of moderates, and 41% of conservatives say no book should ever be banned. It makes me wonder why we allow any book to be banned, and why we do not stand up and say no to these individuals and groups who want to control us and what we read.

Here's the list from the American Library Association. The ALA’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010 include the following titles; each title is followed by the reasons given for challenging the book (Quoted from ALA's site):

1. "And Tango Makes Three" by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: Homosexuality, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group
2. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Offensive language, Racism, Sex Education, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence
3. "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: Insensitivity, Offensive Language, Racism, Sexually Explicit
4. "Crank" by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit
5. "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence
6. "Lush" by Natasha Friend
Reasons: Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group
7. "What My Mother Doesn’t Know" by Sonya Sones
Reasons: Sexism, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group
8. "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America" by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: Drugs, Inaccurate, Offensive Language, Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint
9. "Revolutionary Voices" edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit
10. "Twilight" by  Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: Religious Viewpoint, Violence

Reading the list, I wonder about the motivation of the groups who have had these texts banned. I'm curious as to what you think might have motivated groups to want these books removed not only from their hands, but yours too.

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