Thursday, September 29, 2016

The would-be banners

They are still out there, even in 2016. They are the people who obsess over stopping the dissemination of ideas which they find offensive. Specifically, they try to stop books that contain such ideas from becoming widely available to the public. They are the would-be book banners.

These are the people who challenge books available through libraries and schools and ask for them to be taken off the shelves. They would say that they are just trying to protect children, but it generally turns out that they are trying to keep children from reading about things which they find offensive, without regard to whether such knowledge is actually harmful to kids.


Over the years, a dazzling variety of books have been challenged. For example, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and, of course, Harry Potter have been the subjects of concerted campaigns to get them off the shelves. In 2014, even Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop came in for criticism and an attempt to ban it. The argument was that it promoted violence! Against Pops, I guess. That complaint was quashed.


Every year in September, the American Library Association calls attention to the attempts to stifle ideas by designating Banned Book Week. This year the week runs from September 25 to October 1, and, in connection with that, the ALA has released its list of the most frequently challenged books during the past year. Here are the top ten, along with the reasons that they were challenged.


  1. Looking for Alaska by John Green: "Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group." This is literature for young adults by a phenomenally successful writer in that genre. Two of his previous books are The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, both of which were adapted as movies. Looking for Alaska also will become a movie.
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James: "Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, (Really? What age group is that?) concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it, poorly written." If being poorly written were a legitimate reason for banning books, the shelves of the library would not be so well populated.
  3. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings: "Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group." This is an illustrated children's book based on the true story of Jazz Jennings, a transgender child who helped to write the story.
  4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin: "Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group." Book contains the stories of six transgender young adults about their experiences in establishing their identities.
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon: "Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, profanity and atheism." This one is a perennial on these lists. It tells the story of a 15-year-old autistic boy who is falsely accused of killing a neighborhood dog.
  6. The Bible: "Religious viewpoint." This is the first year for this religious text to be on the list. The main complaints seem to be that it condones the killing of people who don't conform to the majority view of appropriate behavior; e.g., homosexuals and women adulterers.
  7. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: "Violence and graphic images." This graphic novel tells the story of the author's coming to terms with her sexuality, coming out as a lesbian, and learning that her father was homosexual.
  8. Habibi by Craig Thompson: "Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group." This is another graphic novel, set in the Middle East, which tells the tale of two child slaves fighting to find a place in the world.
  9. Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter: "Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, violence." This children's book tells the true story of a grandmother in Afghanistan who risks everything to send her granddaughter to school, even though it is forbidden by the Taliban.
  10. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan: "Homosexuality, condones public displays of affection." This is a young adult novel based on a true incident that tells the story of two 17-year-old boys who attempt to set a Guinness World Record with a 32-hour marathon kissing session.
Do you detect a theme in these challenges? It seems that the challengers are most afraid of sexuality and religion - at least any sexuality or religious viewpoint that deviates from their own. And though the titles on the list do change from year to year, that is the continuing theme: Our children should not be exposed to any idea of which we don't approve. 

And yet they are exposed to such ideas every day simply by living in the modern world. Wouldn't it be better if they could be exposed through a well-written and interesting book?

In the end, of course, book banning doesn't work. There is no way to permanently stop the flow of ideas once loosed in the world. But you can bet some people will keep trying and there will be another list next year.

4 comments:

  1. This practice is deplorable, and nothing awakens more curiosity than finding out for yourself the reason why the book has been banned in first place.

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    1. Indeed. Banning books just ensures their popularity, but the banners never seem to learn that.

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  2. Book banners are like insects who appear to be harmful but actually help. Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if minds were open to knowing everything, instead of just what supports their views/obsessions. Great post. I have read Looking for Alaska and The Curious Incident. Both are great. I still have not made it all the way through the Bible and I bet I am not alone.

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    1. I actually did read the entire Bible once, back in my teenage years during my religious period.

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