Let us now praise banned books

Last week was the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week. Each year the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom promotes awareness of challenged and banned books in the United States. Challenged books are books that individuals or groups have requested to be removed from library shelves or school curriculum. Books fall into the category of banned books when these individuals or groups succeed.

I was shocked to learn that the practice of banning books is an ongoing one. The ALA provides the top ten most challenged books for 2001 through 2011 and many are books I’ve read. They range from young adult books (The Hunger Games Trilogy, Crank, Twilight) and kids books (The Harry Potter Series, And Tango Makes Three, Captain Underpants) to classics (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye, The Catcher in the Rye) and the horribly ironic (Fahrenheit 451).

Many of the challenged/banned books that fall in the children or young adult sections are accused of having violence, sexually explicit conduct, or are generally considered not appropriate for the age group. Maybe it’s because I’m in my late twenties and so middle school and high school aren’t so far in my past that I don’t remember them, but shouldn’t the age kids read about bullying and first kisses be when those same events are occurring in the kids’ own lives? The Chocolate War made the top ten in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009. The reasons behind the bans include: offensive language, sexually explicit activities, plot unsuited to age group, and violence.

The book is set in a boys-only high school and centers around bullying. A powerful student group bullies the main character through alienation, prank phone calls, the destruction of personal property, and finally outright violence. The headmaster privately encourages this behavior in his attempts to sell more chocolate bars than in previous year. Middle school and high school are when kids experience bullying, whichever side they end up on and it is in these years that they should be exposed to literature about it. Is the book violent? Yes. Is there sexually explicit content? Yes. Is there offensive language? Yes. Is the book unsuited to the age group? Not on your life.

Other books in the young adult section that have been banned in the past ten years are often cited for drug use and explicit sexual scenes. I remember a customer at the bookstore looking for the book Crank by Ellen Hopkins. The book is the first in a series about a young girl who does meth, gets raped, and ends up pregnant. In the subsequent books she tries unsuccessfully to quit drugs and raise the baby but her life falls further out of control. The customer confided in me that she didn’t understand why her granddaughter would want to read something like that since her mother had recently died and she had her own trouble with drugs. I offered up the opinion that maybe the girl wanted to read about someone in a similar situation because she was having trouble dealing with her feelings on her own, The customer looked skeptical but left with the books.

I know my high school had drugs that were easily accessible. Sex was discussed in the hallways. I never witnessed violent bullying but I saw other forms. And that was a small Catholic school. The time to read books about these topics isn’t in your twenties or thirties when you are safely removed from the situations described.

Most of the banned or challenged books are being hidden away from society in an effort to protect us from their ideas, no matter how ridiculous this seems. The Catcher in the Rye teaches kids to ignore authority; The Harry Potter series promotes Satanism; The Bluest Eye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn promote racism. I think the last group hurts my brain the most. Those books are about racism — they don’t promote it. They are about a society that treats people differently based on the color of their skin, and how detrimental it is to our society to believe that’s okay or to forget how terribly we behaved in the past. Harper Lee wrote a beautiful book about racism and society from a child’s point of view, she uncovered darkness through the eyes of someone who didn’t understand why people would be treated so poorly based on skin color.

A few years ago an editor, Alan Gribben, decided to remove the N-word from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and replace it with the word slave. Mark Twain wasn’t promoting the use of the word by using it in his book, he was showing the prevalence of the word in the society he was writing about. Slavery had been abolished when Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, but racism and hate crimes were ongoing. Changing one word for our sensitive 21st century minds changes the tone of the book. Craig Hotchkiss, the Education Program Manager at the Mark Twain House & Museum, says “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a happy or comfortable book to read, but there can be no doubt that it still is one of the essential books we Americans should read in order to understand and reflect upon the ugliest and most divisive aspect of our national story and character.” Books aren’t always fun escapes into a different world, especially when they are trying to teach us about the flaws in the world we already occupy.

I think Fahrenheit 451 takes the cake as far as banned books are concerned. It’s one of my favorites — I love a good dystopian novel — and it doesn’t beat around the bush as far as theme is concerned. Banning books is bad, a controlling government is bad, individual thought is good, overexposure to entertainment and lack of critical thinking is bad. It has been banned and pulled from required reading lists because of the phrase “God damn” and because of its themes. Of course, people who want to ban books wouldn’t see the irony of banning a book about banning books. One would think that a book where firefighters burn books and TVs come in wall size would appeal to people who worry that once instance of swearing in a book will lead to a lifetime of bad decisions for readers.

I’ve always been the type of person who wants to do something more if you tell me not to do it. I think that parents should read the books their kids read and discuss with them any negative feelings they have about those books. There will always be themes that aren’t appropriate for children, that’s why bookstores and libraries separate kids books from young adult and adult books. People can choose to read or not read a book on their own, and I can’t stop them from raising their own children in a similar mindset. But stopping other people from reading books you don’t like should never be a viable option.

Kelly Hannon works in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at www.letterstopeopleihate.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

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