Tuesday, September 27, 2005

ALA's Banned Book Week

Banned BooksYesterday I touted Oprah Winfrey's return to championing books by living authors (of fiction and some types of non-fiction), so it's especially appropriate that I post that yesterday also marked the start of the American Library Association's (ALA) Banned Book Week (BBW). Established in 1982, BBW, in its founders' words, "celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met."

The weeklong effort aims to promote greater public consciousness about the challenges lodged, which can lead to bans, by parents, library patrons and administrators against the presence of certain books remaining in curricula and on bookshelves, and to foster civic discussions and action to prevent censorship, which in any case is already underway among the mainstream media, and has been internalized by many Americans. The fear many people, especially politicians and TV personalities, have of overtly and publicly criticizing President Katrina is one example.

Two authors who've been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, have written books that have repeatedly made the Top 100 most challenged or banned books books list over the 1990-2000 period. Angelou, in fact, is the 8th most challenged author during the 1990-2004 period.

The ALA site notes that between 1990 and 2000, of the 6,364 challenges reported to or recorded by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (see The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books):

  • 1,607 were challenges to “sexually explicit” material (up 161 since 1999);
  • 1,427 to material considered to use “offensive language”; (up 165 since 1999)
  • 1,256 to material considered “unsuited to age group”; (up 89 since 1999)
  • 842 to material with an “occult theme or promoting the occult or Satanism,”; (up 69 since 1999)
  • 737 to material considered to be “violent”; (up 107 since 1999)
  • 515 to material with a homosexual theme or “promoting homosexuality"; (up 18 since 1999)and
  • 419 to material “promoting a religious viewpoint.” (up 22 since 1999)

It goes on to say that "other reasons for challenges included 'nudity' (317 challenges, up 20 since 1999), 'racism' (267 challenges, up 22 since 1999), 'sex education' (224 challenges, up 7 since 1999), and 'anti-family' (202 challenges, up 9 since 1999)." Works were often challenged, as the list below shows, on multiple grounds. The majority (71%) of the challenges were against texts in schools or school libraries, while 24% were against texts in public libraries (which represented a drop of 2% in this category). Parents brought 60% of the charges, patrons brought 15%, adminstrators brought 9%.

In 2004, the ALA received reports of 547 challenges, and believes that for every reported challenge, 4 or 5 go unreported. Top 10 most challenged books for 2004, in descending order of challenges, are:
  1. The Chocolate War for sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint, being unsuited to age group and violence
  2. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, for racism, offensive language and violence
  3. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles, for inaccuracy and political viewpoint
  4. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey, for offensive language and modeling bad behavior
  5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, for homosexuality, sexual content and offensive language
  6. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones, for sexual content and offensive language
  7. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, for nudity and offensive language
  8. King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, for homosexuality
  9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, for racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and unsuited to age group
  10. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, for racism, offensive language and violence
The ALA's website notes, "Three of the 10 books on the 'Ten Most Challenged Books of 2004' were cited for homosexual themes - which is the highest number in a decade. Sexual content and offensive language remain the most frequent reasons for seeking removal of books from schools and public libraries." The site also points out that within the last week, poet and fiction Rudolfo Anaya's award-winning novel Bless Me, Ultima, was banned from the Norwood, Colorado schools for offensive language. Having read Anaya's novel (and met him, years ago, when I invited him, Elizabeth Alexander and Li-Young Lee to participate in a panel at the University of Virginia), I can say without hesitation that most students--from kindergarten through high school--probably hear far worse language at home, in the school hallways, on TV, in public, than they'll encounter in Bless Me, Ultima.

Yet this fact doesn't halt the censors, who, like their predecessors at the cusp of the literary age, and like people from oral cultures across the globe, still attribute tremendous power to the written word. If it's in a book, it's particularly dangerous. The Nazis were particularly fixated on this point; among their first public acts were book burnings. It took them four years (1937) to mount a "Degenerate Art" exhibit, and nearly till the beginning of the war to expunge "objectionable" music (Jazz, music by Jewish composers, avant-garde or ideological resistant music) from the repertories of all the German and Austrian orchestras.

So what can you do? In addition to reading and pushing to have the banned books available at your local library, you can go to the ALA's Action Guide Page, which lists an extensive array of activities you can undertake to counter censorship and promote freedom of access to books and freedom of expression. Read and take action!


  1. i think it is insane that they still ban books ... i didnt read I know why the caged bird sings but i didnt know there was homosexuality in it!

  2. These books were not banned, they were challenged or complained about. Have you ever tried to get a library to withdraw a book?

    Most of the real banning happens in the back rooms where the ordering is done. Librarians are 223:1 liberal to conservative, and they regularly find "professional" reasons to NOT purchase conservative political titles and Christian titles.