By Mrs. McHugh
HHS Librarian/Advisor of The Hawk
Who gets to decide what you’re allowed to read?
That’s the question the American Library Association asks each year during Banned Books Week. A national group of school, public and university librarians, the ALA started the program in 1982 as more and more books were being challenged by parents, religious leaders, or politicians who believe those titles should be removed from the school or public library. The challengers argue that readers, especially students, should not have access to this “dangerous” material.
What are these “dangerous” books? Why are they being challenged? According to the Banned Books Week website, the book George by Alex Gino was the most frequently challenged book in 2020. The story of a transgender student seeking acceptance in school, George comes under fire for its LGBTQIA+ content and because, critics say, it conflicts with religious or community values. In fact, books about LGBTQIA+ issues have long been among the most challenged. The picture book And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, about two male penguins who adopt a chick, was among eight books on the 2019 top ten list cited for homosexual content.
In 2020, the ALA noted, challenges shifted toward many books dealing with racism and police violence. Among the 10 most challenged were Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. The books were criticized as being biased, political and anti-police.
Other arguments that critics have used to launch challenges are that the books promote witchcraft (the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling), disruptive behavior (Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey), profanity (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood) or sexual activity (Looking for Alaska by John Green). Books that deal with rape, sexual abuse, alcoholism, drug use, suicide or other serious issues are often called too mature for students.
Librarians, book sellers, publishers and readers fight these challenges, sometimes in the courts. But the fear is that frequent challenges will result in self-censorship, making authors think twice before tackling sensitive topics, or librarians and teachers wary of including controversial books on their shelves.
Many of the books mentioned in this article can be found in the HHS library which, like all libraries, sets selection policies for choosing books. There are many factors considered when adding books to the library, including the age and social/emotional development of students, the needs of the curriculum, and the quality of the book. But isn’t choosing just some books for a library a kind of censorship? Librarians say the difference is that their focus is on including the varied interests and viewpoints of their communities, rather than excluding topics that are controversial or sensitive.
Some books that have been challenged end up being accepted as problematic, requiring honest discussion and reflection before being used in a classroom. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, for example, uses racial slurs that, while appropriate for the setting of the book, can be upsetting to readers. It also has been criticized for promoting the idea of a “white savior,” where the white characters are the heroes who rescue the African Americans who are incapable of saving themselves. Educators in recent years have begun asking what other books might better address the issues of racism and discrimination. Is this the same as banning a book? Or is it an evolution of our cultural norms?
Who gets to decide what is appropriate? That’s the question at the heart of Banned Books Week. If a book upsets you, should you have the power to keep others from reading it? If you find it offensive, can you demand it be removed from the library or classroom? The American Library Association says no. By commemorating Banned Books Week, which was held this year from Sept. 26-Oct. 2, the group argues that students and adults alike should be free to read whatever interests them — no matter how dangerous somebody else thinks it is.
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