Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Banned Book Week

Sorry for my failure to post yesterday -- I thought I would have time to blog despite my packed schedule, but I had less time than I expected, and I didn't want to rush the topic.


The American Library Association has released its list of the top ten most frequently challenged books for 2008, and I have to say that I was particularly saddened by the appearance of two of the books on the list. Go read the list, then come back, and we'll discuss.

(Whistling patiently.)

Okay. So, what did you think? Have you read any of them? (Perhaps the one that's been on the NY Times bestseller list for a couple years?) I've read four, and the two that I'm going to mention here are on my wish list for my 2.5-year-old daughter. They were on my must-buy list before I realized someone else wanted to ban them.

And Tango Makes Three is the true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins from the Central Park Zoo who successfully hatched an egg and raised a baby female penguin together -- that would be the titular Tango. (Sadly, after 6 years together, Roy and Silo broke up in 2005.) As a former New Yorker, I was always going to buy this book. It went on my own wish list years before I even had a kid. (I am also a guaranteed customer for books about NYC hawks or NYC polar bears.) This book has been the #1 challenged book on the ALA's list since the book was released.

Uncle Bobby's Wedding is a story about a little girl guinea pig who is worried that her favorite uncle will treat her differently after he gets married. I cannot tell you how much I love this little book. It expresses a young child’s concerns about family relationships and change. It stresses the power of love to encompass both old and new. The fact that Chloe will be getting two uncles instead of an uncle and an aunt is pretty much incidental to the story, and it makes me so amazingly happy to see that in a kid's book (instead of a story that talks about how different such a thing might be, not that there's anything wrong with it.)

Someone wants to ban Uncle Bobby's Wedding? Dammit! It breaks my heart to think that there are people out there -- other parents, probably, according to this pie chart showing Challenges by Initiator -- trying to make sure that my kid doesn't have the opportunity to read this book, when in fact I am constantly on the lookout for books exactly like this one: books that CASUALLY show a little bit of diversity. (Similarly, I am always on the lookout for books that CASUALLY show strong women. Not, oh, wow, here's the one princess in a million who doesn't need a prince to rescue her, isn't that so rare and amazing, because it shouldn't be rare, okay?)

If I didn't live in a liberal town that puts these books in the front of the display, if I didn't have enough money to own a computer and be able to buy books online, these sweet and wonderful books might not be available to me or my daughter. This saddened me more than the idea that Huck Finn was on the top ten most challenged list for 2007, because I always kind of assumed that all challenges to that classic are going to fail. But... the more I read on the ALA website, the horrified I'm becoming. Check out the ALA's list of banned or challenged classics and the reasons for the challenges -- To Kill A Mockingbird was banned from the Lindale,Tex. advanced placement English reading list in 1996 because the book "conflicted with the values of the community." What values might those be, if you please?

I joined the library committee for my daughter's preschool last month, because I love books and I want to make sure that the best books are always available to my daughter. And I am now going to send a big fat donation to a public library. I practically lived in the NYC public libraries growing up, and this week is as good as any to give a little back. I'm also going to go pay full price for those two books, new, right now, instead of waiting for a used copy to become available.


Is there any situation in which you think banning books is appropriate? This is not a trick question, I promise. Nathan Bransford took a poll about whether children's books should have content ratings, and 38% said it's a good idea, so obviously there are plenty of people who don't want their kids reading certain books at a certain age. But how do we collectively decide what is available, and where? Is there anyone you would trust to decide which books should be banned from your community library or public schools? Who?



  1. Huh. I believe that MOST books have something good to say regardless of content (banning To Kill A Mockingbird is just plain wrong). That said I also believe that we as parents have a responsibility to know what our children are reading and talk to them about the morals portrayed in books that conflict with our family's values.

    When I was in junior high school my English teacher chose a book for the class to read based almost entirely on shock value. She wanted to shake up the system, This would have been fine had she picked a book with some literary merit (like Catcher in the Rye, which may be considered scandalous, but is undeniably well written and thought-provoking), but she didn't. The book she picked was poorly written, badly edited and filled with profanity and sexual references that had nothing to do with the story. After reading the first chapters I refused to read the rest of the book and instead opted for a book that was actually written by a person who could write.

    I have no problem with questionable moral content in books as long as it isn't salacious. I am very annoyed when a writer throws in a raunchy scene that has nothing to do with the story line and I don't think these kind of books should be taught in schools (although I don't have a problem with them remaining in school libraries). I think most of this is common sense, but occasionally there is a teacher who is just irresponsible.

    I like the idea of book ratings--if just to give children a better idea of the book's intended age group.

  2. My knee-jerk reaction is I am opposed to banning books.

    I am opposed because this creates an unsettling power dynamic.
    Do we, the readers, get to elect those who have the power to ban?
    Do we, the readers, get notice about which books are being banned?
    Do we, the readers, get to develope the criteria for what gets considered for banning?
    I chafe at the idea that someone, without my consent or knowledge, would be making choices about what I have a right to have access to. The power should be in the hands of the reader.

    And, why are any of the books on the banned lists more sensational or inflammatory than religious texts?

    I also get my panties into a wad over the idea of a rating system for books.
    If parents are concerned about their children having access to dangerous thoughts and ideas that are transmitted to them via books then it is their responsibility as parents to be more engaged with what their children are reading and why.

    When I was a child I read novels that would probably have been deemed "unsuited to age group." I mean, I was reading Stephen King at 10/11. My parents knew and discussed the books with me. Because that was their job as parents. It was not the job of the library to decide that I oughtn't be allowed to read it.

    Banning books strikes me as harmful but it also strikes me as just plain lazy.
    One doesn't grow intellectually or artistically by being kept away from challenging thoughts or ideas. We grow because we are forced to learn to intellectually and artistically defend our ideas. Removing X from the equation doesn't get us any closer to solving X + Y = Z. It just makes a big ole mess and creates people who can't even begin to solve for the very real X in their world.

  3. You'd want to ban a book if, when you open it, it sprays poop or acid or anthrax powder all over your hands and face.

    Luckily, books don't do that.

    I'm going to read every single book on that list, including re-reading the one I already read before--not only because they're good but also to stick it to the book banners. If you don't want your child reading certain material then monitor what they read, use your consumer choice to not buy it, and discuss together your set of morals.

    But get those morals and decisions out of my face. Unless the book sprays stuff.

    And I agree with babypowderdyke that banning books is lazy.

  4. Natalie:

    I fear book ratings. How would those determinations be made? Not based on language, surely: Hemingway supposedly writes at a third-grade reading level (all those nice short sentences), but obviously his concepts are much more complex than that. And Of Mice and Men was banned from the George County, Miss. schools in 2002 because of profanity. (This boggles my mind, seriously.)

    As for age group... here are the reasons behind the two challenged books I mentioned above:

    And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
    Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group

    Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen
    Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group

    This says to me that at some point the age group WAS made clear by the authors, or the publishers, or maybe just the librarians who put these picture books in the kids' section... and there are complaints anyway.

    I flat-out don't trust other people to decide for me. And I certainly don't trust others to decide for my kid. That's MY job, not theirs.

    The school reading list is trickier. I mean, SOMEONE has to pick books that have the right reading level, right content and subject matter, right amount of literary merit. But there is much to debate about "literary merit" -- for the classics, there's been time for the public and experts at large to agree on the books that have value, but if a teacher wants to teach something contemporary, there won't as big a consensus on the issue of merit, and it will be harder to argue what's worthy and what isn't. Tricky.

    Can I ask which book you were taught that was chosen purely for shock value?

    BPD: if you follow that link to Mur Lafferty, you'll see an awesome quote by Milton, basically saying that unchallenged beliefs don't have the value of those that have withstood contrary input.

    And, I almost commented about Stephen King, because a blogger this week mentioned taking a copy of Cell away from an 8-year-old... and I thought, Hey! I read King at that age, and I loved it! Back off! My parents knew what I was reading, and it was up for discussion, right along with my other elementary school loves, Watership Down and The Hobbit/LotR.

    But then again, I don't know that kid. We each learn things about the children in our families/social groups that will help us guide them, right? I don't think I'd ban my daughter for reading anything in particular, but if she had screaming nightmares after reading a Stephen King book, then I'd certainly warn her away from the next horror novel she picked up, or insist on reading it with her, or something...


    Okay, you got me. I'll join your fight to ban the poop-spraying books.

  5. Here is one librarian's well-thought-out response to a library patron who objected to Uncle Bobby's Wedding. Remember when I asked who we should trust to make decisions about what books are appropriate for children? I would like to make it known that I trust librarian Jamie.

  6. I embarrassed because I can't even remember the name of the book. It was written by a local author and I think self-published. Our teacher knew the author and she thought the subject matter-- sex-- would appeal to eighth grade readers. This was NOT a piece of great literature. It wasn't even something that a reputable press would publish. And she read the raunchiest parts ALOUD, which was quite shocking to my little eighth grade class.

    I am very opposed to book banning in general. Really I am. And I am very in favor of parental responsibility, but I'm just saying there are valid reasons to ban books (at least from being taught in classrooms). I think it's fine to put everything in a library, but I want my kids to be taught from good books.

  7. Honestly, I don't think any books should be banned EVER. I actually don't care if that means there are a whole heap of books out there that I fundamentally cannot support and would never read, the point is that once we start saying who can say what in books then we edit freedom of speech. Freedom is one of those things that humans really suck at setting boundaries for. Every nation or generation throughout history that has tried to tell others what they can say and how they should say and when they should say it etc has buggered it up. No one should be going around deciding what is right for people to think and say. Just my opinion. That said, parents need to take responsibility for what their little ones read and see and for what they themselves want to read and see. But books contribute to humanities right to say what we feel and think. Can't edit that one without restricting freedom. Great post Carrie. As usual you have me fired up :) (in a good way)

  8. I find the idea of book banning completely and utterly abhorent.

    That said, are there books I wouldn't want my children to read? Certainly. But banning books is not the answer. Reading with your children and staying involved in and informed of their reading choices, those are viable ways to insure they get a broad, varied, yet appropriate diet of reading material.

    I can't even begin to express how frustrated and horrified I am that books such as Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird are being banned in some communities.

  9. I love banned book week because it creates curiosity and gives banned books great exposure. If Tango's parents were Roy and Suzy I bet the book wouldn't have sold, or be known anywhere near as well as the banned Roy and Silas version.
    Maybe it's a sneaky, but clever marketing ploy on behalf of the authors.
    Maureen Hume.

  10. Natalie, that book sounds truly terrible, and NOT classroom-worthy.

    Maureen, I think most people who write children's books with "controversial" topics do so because they think it's important to put those stories out there, not because they're hoping to cause a marketing blitz. Yes, the penguins first made headlines because they were the "different" ones at the zoo, and THEN the book was written, so there's definitely a certain amount of exposure built-in to that book's subject matter, but there's also a book on the list that was challenged because it deals with suicide. I bet that author had no intent to "get attention" with the topic beyond the fact that s/he thought it was an important thing for young people to read about. Or that this was the story that captivated the AUTHOR'S imagination, so that's the story that got written.

    I DO think that publicity is part of the point of banned book week, though. If some people are out there trying to hide these books, then other people will go out of their way to counteract that by promoting the books.

  11. This is off topic, but I finally answered your question about my scariest travel experience.

  12. I can't take the idea of banning books. Of course there are going to be books we disagree with but to quote Neil Gaiman: ..."Because if you don't stand up for the stuff that you don't like, when they come for he stuff you do like you've already lost."

  13. CKHB, my 'marketing ploy' comment was said tongue in cheek and never intented to be taken seriously.
    Maureen Hume

  14. Ah, another situation where tone is lost in among the text -- sorry, Maureen!

    But seriously, I can see getting on the challenged list as a kind of benefit... at least it means that people are taking your book SERIOUSLY enough that they think it's worth trying to ban. That means they think it has the power to influence readers. And that's pretty cool.

  15. Hey! Thanks for your very kind post about my book. It kind of made my day. I'm so glad you like it, and you get it.