Banned Books Week…

In case you haven’t heard, it’s Banned Books Week. As a writer of young adult fiction that might be considered “edgy” or for an “older teen audience,” this is an issue that hits incredibly close to home.

Books are most often challenged by people and groups who, at their core, have the best of intentions: To protect children from explicit and/or difficult material. Still, censorship in any form is wrong. Parents have the right and responsibility to keep their children from material they deem inappropriate; librarians, teachers, religious organizations, and politicians do not.

On a personal note:

I am not exactly a restrictive parent. Granted, my daughter is only four, but I’ve never been one to keep her from things other parents might find unsavory. I have friends who won’t let their kids see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because “it’s scary.” Yeah… my daughter has watched (and enjoyed) The Walking Dead. In fact, my husband and I used her questions about zombies as a weird sort of teaching moment. Zombies aren’t real… they’re just pretend… those creepers are just regular people wearing crazy make-up.

That said, there are lots (lots!) of things my daughter isn’t ready for. For example, she recently asked me to read her the first Harry Potter book (bless her heart! She’s well aware of how much her mommy loves it!), and I had to explain to her that she’s not old enough for such a story. I don’t doubt that she’d understand the basic good vs. evil concept (she’s seen every Disney movie ever made; heroes and villains are very much a part of her vocabulary), but I’m not ready to expose her to some of Harry‘s darker story lines, particularly the one about his mother sacrificing her life for the love of her child. A little too intense for a four-year-old, I think.

When I am ready to read her Harry Potter, and later, when she’s reading Newbery Honorees and–way down the road–YA fiction, my husband and I intend to use those stories to begin discussions about difficult topics. And why not? Parenting is hard enough without reinventing the wheel. If there’s great literature out there that’ll open up the lines of communication, I intend to use it.

Still, year after year, people and groups continue to challenge books, most often for the following reasons*:

1. The material was considered to be “sexually explicit.”

2. The material contained “offensive language.”

3. The material was “unsuited to any age group.”

2010’s list of Most Challenged Books*:

  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
    Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and 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, and violence
  3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
    Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit
  4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  6. Lush, by Natasha Friend
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  7. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
    Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
    Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint
  9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
    Reasons: homosexuality and sexually explicit
  10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
    Reasons: religious viewpoint and violence
And, a few of the Classics that have been challenged at one time or another*: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, Ulysses, by James Joyce, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and 1984, by George Orwell.

How can we stand up to book challengers?

1. By defending our right to intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular. We can talk about the danger of restraining the availability of information in our free society.

2. We can voice the importance of the First Amendment and (especially) the power of literature.

3. We can support librarians, teachers, booksellers, and members of the community to who fight to keep “inappropriate” books in library and school collections.

4. We can continue to buy, borrow, loan, read, and recommend banned and challenged books. (Read Twenty Boy Summer! Read Speak! Read To Kill a Mockingbird! Read The Hunger Games! Read The Grapes of Wrath!)

Now, excuse me while I hop down from my soapbox. I want to go read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

How will you celebrate Banned Books Week?

*Statistics and lists borrowed from the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Books page. Please do visit the ALA’s site for more information.


20 thoughts on “Banned Books Week…

  1. Alison Miller says:

    Awesome post, Katy. This is an issue I’m becoming very passionate about. And I have a similar stance on it.

    I would love to read The Absolute True Diary of a Part-time Indian. And I still can’t believe some of the books on that list. Grrr.

    • katyupperman says:

      I know… that list makes me a little crazy. And the reasoning behind some of the challengs… really?!

      I’ll definitely let you know what I think of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian when I finish. 🙂

  2. Rebecca B says:

    Great post. I agree completely that people opposed to content in a book should use the work as a springboard to a discussion–not a target for censorship.
    Hope you like Absolutely True Diary–I loved it.

  3. Tracey Neithercott says:

    This is a really great post. I’m not really sure why people in a position of authority believe it’s a good idea to censor anything. There’s a line that’s easy to cross once you start banning.

    Besides, telling teens not to read something is sort of like putting a flashing neon light over the bookshelf that say, “Really interesting stuff grown-ups don’t want you to read, right here!!!!”

    And, on top of that, teens can see and read way worse on the internet. If I had a teenager, I’d rather they read a book that contains sex or violence than looking the same stuff up online. (The argument that, well, parents can monitor online usage, just proves that parents should be the ones saying “yes” or “no” to a book.)

    Um, end rant. 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      I love it when you rant, Tracey, probably because I always agree! You’re so right: the second you tell a teen (or anyone, really) that something is off limits, it becomes immediately intriguing. Parents and parents only should have the final word on what’s appropriate for their child(ren).

  4. Nadja Notariani says:

    Wow! Great post, Katy. The only point I would add is this. Once people reach the age of majority, which happens to be 18 in the U.S.A., they may read any book they want (I am against banning any book). Before that age, however, they must abide their parent’s wishes. Maybe not a popular idea, but I think a necessary one.
    I, like you, happen to be a very lenient parent. I encourage my kids to read all sorts of books, especially those that others shout, “Don’t Read!” about. Why? Because it never hurts to explore ideas. If I do not agree with a particular idea found in a ‘controversial’ book, I simply explain my viewpoint and why I hold it. Then, we move on. But, I also respect a parent’s right to run their home as they see fit – even when I don’t agree with them. I don’t want someone telling me that I can’t expose my kids to all ideas….so I won’t tell others that they have to expose their kids to those same ideas. Adulthood will roll around soon enough!
    Again, Katy, great post. ~ Nadja

    • katyupperman says:

      Thanks so much, Nadja. 🙂

      I also respect a parent’s right to run their home as they see fit – even when I don’t agree with them. I don’t want someone telling me that I can’t expose my kids to all ideas….so I won’t tell others that they have to expose their kids to those same ideas.

      This is worded so perfectly and is so spot on. I’m thrilled you commented!

  5. Kari Bradley (@KariBradley7) says:

    First, I love Absolutely True Diary. I read it in about a day (In Chelan!) a couple summers ago.

    We used True Diary in literature circles in our 9th grade classes (along with Speak, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Peeling the Onion and Stargirl). We had parents sign permission forms, and I have a couple wonderful anecdotes I cling to about how students responded to the literature–it was so powerful to have relevant, modern, compelling novels (that of course are well written).

    The following school year our principal told us we couldn’t read Absolutely True Diary as part of the literature circles. My department and I look at this as effectively banning the book, although it is in our library and we’re allowed to put it on a recommended reading list. That “compromise” really makes no sense after all the steps we put in place. It really crushed our spirit as teachers–I’m not trying to be melodramatic. 🙂

    There is one banned book in my junior high library. It kills me that an individual’s parents feel like they’re saving the world when they challenge a book. And, it kills me when my district caves because they don’t know how to say “this has literary merit and educational value for the other 1,006 students in our school.” I’m not being very eloquent, but I am–of course–against banning books. 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      Kari, you are totally eloquent. 🙂 I think most of us are SO against book banning (and censorship in general) that our passion sometimes gets in the way of organized thought. (I read and reread this blog post about a dozen times before publishing it to make sure it was EXACTLY what I wanted to say!).

      I can’t imagine the frustration of trying to teach quality literature and having it challenged or banned along the way. It made me so angry when I was teaching fifth grade and we were told that we could stock the Harry Potter books in our classroom libraries, but we were NOT to “teach” them or even read them aloud. I mean REALLY…

      I used to wonder if when I was a parent my opinion on this kind of thing would change. Like, maybe I would think it was acceptable for The Man to deem what should and shouldn’t be available to children when I had one of my own. That hasn’t been the case at all. *I* want to be the one who decides what is and isn’t appropriate for my daughter, and I want to let other parents make that decision freely as well.

      (There. That comment reply almost equals a whole new post!)

  6. Jessica Love says:

    SUCH a great post. This is something I also feel so strongly about that when I try to talk about it it just comes out all jumbled and manic. As a teacher, I am SO respectful and supportive when a parent doesn’t want his or her student to read a certain book. (I even had a parent take issue with Walden last year.) But when they try to dictate what every student has access to, that’s when I take issue.

    And what Tracey says is so true. When I told my classes last year that Slaughterhouse-Five was being challenged, all five of my class copies were checked out within a day. They would have never picked it up otherwise. Love it.

    • katyupperman says:

      You make a great point about respecting the wishes of parents who choose to limit what their kids read (or watch). They absolutely have that right and responsibility to do so and should not catch grief from teachers or booksellers or anyone else. It’s those few crazy bad apples that try to push their beliefs on all of us that upset me too.

      I hope your students enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five… I haven’t read that one yet!

  7. Ciara Knight says:

    I’ll never forget the Harry Potter band in my area. I live in the bible belt and you would have thought J K Rowling wrote a satanic book. The kids in the private schools had hidden marks on them that they’d flash in the hall to represent what house they were from. I think all they managed was to create more buzz about the books. 🙂

  8. Sophia Richardson says:

    I’m not celebrating so much as continuing to read whatever the hell I want to read because I have a brain and can do crazy things like decide for myself what I am and am not capable of handling in a book. Many people have said that much better than I have, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate.

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