This week (September 18th – 24th) is Banned Books Week. No, it doesn’t mean we should ban books this week … quite the opposite! My plan (and we all know how easily my plans are waylaid) is to do a couple of posts this week about the recent spate of banning books of all sorts by schools and libraries. But for today, I just want to start by bringing awareness of Banned Books Week … how it started and why, and what the significance is today in the culture where whitewashing of history seems to be a political football.
Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 by First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug. Krug said that the Association of American Publishers contacted her with ideas to bring banned books “to the attention of the American public” after a “slew of books” had been banned that year. Krug relayed the information to the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, and “six weeks later we celebrated the first Banned Books Week.”
The event is sponsored by a coalition of organizations (far too numerous to list here) dedicated to free expression, including American Library Association, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), National Coalition Against Censorship; National Council of Teachers of English; PEN America. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Banned Books Week receives support from DKT Liberty Project and Penguin Random House. And those are just a few of the organizations in support of Banned Books Week.
For the 2022 event, student activist Cameron Samuels was named the first Youth Honorary Chair for distributing banned books in the Katy Independent School District in Texas. In April 2022, PEN America released a report titled “Banned in the USA” revealing an increase in book banning in the United States since 2021. Student activism against book banning also increased.
Let’s look at one ludicrous example … an example of a banned book that most of us have read or had read to us in our childhood and read to our own kids: Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte’s Web, published in 1952, is a delightful children’s book written by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams.
The book tells the story of a livestock pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer, Charlotte writes messages praising Wilbur in her web in order to persuade the farmer to let him live. Innocent enough, yes? However, Charlotte’s Web was banned in 2006. WHY??? Because “talking animals are blasphemous and unnatural.” Even crazier, in a few school districts, the Merriam-Webster dictionary has been banned!!! WHY??? Because it contains “obscene words”. Well duh … it’s a dictionary, for Pete’s sake!!! Like it or not, ‘obscene’ words do exist! Would you rather your kids get the definition of such words from other kids on the playground, or from a reliable source like the dictionary?
And that Mark Twain classic, Huckleberry Finn, was banned not for the fact that the n-word is used some 200 times throughout the book, but rather because “Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.” Yes, my friends … some people are more offended by the word ‘sweat’ than they are by the racially hateful n-word. Go figure.
The theme for this, the 40th annual Banned Books Week is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” A perfect theme for this chaotic time in the U.S. The vast majority of people do not want books banned …
… and yet this year alone, since January 1st, at least 1,651 books have been banned in various locales. The biggest reasons for banning books historically have been that the material was ‘sexually explicit’, contained ‘offensive language’, or was simply considered unsuitable to any age group. But today, books by Black authors or about racism, and books about the LGBTQ community or by LGBTQ authors are the most likely to be banned.
From an article by the American Libraries Association …
“This is a dangerous time for readers and the public servants who provide access to reading materials. Readers, particularly students, are losing access to critical information, and librarians and teachers are under attack for doing their jobs.”
What a shame that the narrow, closed minds of people result in the banning of books that open pathways to knowledge and imagination, that open the minds of the readers, that educate and entertain all at the same time. I was lucky as a child … nothing was censored or banned from me. In fact, I remember when I was 8 years old, during a cross-country car trip with my mother and my aunt, they took turns reading to me … whichever one wasn’t driving at the moment read and by the end of the journey, they had read the entire book, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, to me! I didn’t understand most of it, but nonetheless I enjoyed it and knew it must be funny for both of them were laughing uproariously! Catcher in the Rye has been banned numerous times since then for “excessive vulgar language, sexual scenes, and things concerning moral issues.”
You’ve probably figured out by now that I am against book bans. I think that there are far too many people with closed, bigoted minds today, and the path to an open mind is knowledge … knowledge of all kinds, knowledge about history, science, and about a wide variety of cultures. How can we appreciate people who are different than us if we know nothing about them? It is this ignorance that leads to the ‘fear of other’ that is causing so much chaos in this nation today. No, banning books is the exact wrong solution!