This coming week, 22 – 28 September 2019, is this year’s American Library Association’s Banned Book Week. I’m familiar with several entries in their list of 2018’s most challenged books, and have already blogged about both Alex Gino’s George—number one on the list—and Raina Telgemeier’s Drama. Lovely books, both of them. Stories that deal sensitively with LGBTQIA issues should be encouraged, not censored. I endorse the ALA’s stance on these.
Words matter. The choices we make—sometimes subtle, sometimes unmistakable—can cause a concept to spring to life in a reader’s mind with exquisite clarity, or make it so muddy they miss the point. Or veer between calming passions and inflaming them. As a writer of decades worth of technical documentation, I’ve been trained towards precision and clarity. As a writer of fiction, I’m still working on that, but I know the choices matter. I assume an association of librarians understands that, too.
That’s why the phrase “Banned Book Week” irritates me, and has for some time. The books on that list have been “challenged” (more on that later), but most attempts at banned them have been unsuccessful. The United States government hasn’t censored children’s books in decades. (It has censored journalism, quite recently, too, but that’s a rant for another day.) No one is telling bookstores they can’t stock the books on that list. Anyone can go online and buy those books without restriction. Their authors haven’t gone to prison for writing them; their publishers haven’t lost their homes, businesses, or freedom for printing them. You want to hear about banned books? Consider Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which couldn’t be sold in the USA for 30 years. Or Madame Bovary, Doctor Zhivago, and Lolita, which have all had government bans. Or The Satanic Verses, whose publication forced its author to go into hiding. There are plenty of cases today worldwide where writers—particularly journalists—are imprisoned or in fear for their lives for what they have written. That’s censorship.
(This is not to say that greater restrictions on what fiction can be published in the USA couldn’t be imposed by the federal government. They could be, have no doubt about it, and would if the religious right-wing radicals had their way. But the long term trends in the USA have been towards greater liberality. Why do you think the right wing has fought so hard for control of the Supreme Court? Because they know that in the long game, they’re losing control of the culture.)
So what does “challenged” mean? If I’m reading the data correctly, many challenges are raised by individual parents or small groups in a community who don’t want their children exposed to the book in a classroom setting. Often the reason given is that the book is age-inappropriate for their children. “Challenged,” then, doesn’t distinguish between those who want the book banned completely—for obscenity, blasphemy, or whatever reason—and those who are willing to let the book remain on the shelves in the town or city library, or even the school library, available to other children, as long as their child doesn’t have to confront it. That, it seems to me, would be a useful statistic, but if it is available, that isn’t obvious to me from the ALA website.
If a book is challenged because parents don’t want their children forced to read it, is that so bad, if they don’t block access for other children? It’s perfectly legitimate for a community to have discussions about what they consider age-appropriate material. That’s democracy in action! Their conclusions may not match mine, but I can’t fault them for being concerned for their children. And this cuts both ways; my husband and I would have raised a fuss if their teachers had tried to inflict that religious propaganda known as “intelligent design” on our children.
Despite my reservations about “Banned Books Week,” I agree with the ALA goals, which are to support “the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”
Most of the books being challenged address real-world problems that our children are regularly dealing with—that’s why they matter. Some of them, like George and Drama, expand our sense of what’s normal, and encourage empathy and compassion. If any child struggling with gender identity or sexual orientation sees themselves in those books’ characters, and find comfort that they are not alone, that is a good thing, and justifies the books’ shelf space.