“Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.” –American Library Association
Here at Lee & Low Books, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite banned/challenged titles (in no particular order).
In addition to loving to read, I am a big movie buff. I make it a point to introduce my 10-year-old son to some of the films that were my favorites when I was growing up. Once in a while, we come across some scenes in a film that are somewhat offensive. This happened when we were watching the 1975 classic
The Return of the Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers. The moment occurred after a scene in which Clouseau is ambushed by his Chinese servant, Kato, resulting in the total destruction of Clouseau’s apartment. Later, Clouseau is talking to a co-worker at police headquarters about the incident, and he refers to Kato in several derogatory and racist terms. My son instantly turned to me and exclaimed, “Hey, that’s racist!”
Recently, I gave a presentation to a college class of future teachers. Their professor asked me: “What advice would you give a teacher who has introduced to her or his class a controversial book that has been challenged by a parent?” I am not sure the answer I gave at the time was a good one, but I have pondered the question some more and would like to offer a few suggestions.
Talk about what the book does well. Point out the main themes of the book and how it is important for today’s children to learn about them in a safe environment. Our book Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan tells the story of a group of boys who escape the slaughter of their people in Sudan. I recall a reviewer, who was also a mother, stating that her child did not need to worry that she might come home one day and not find her parents there. I am a parent myself, and I can empathize with this sentiment. But being a New Yorker in a post 9/11 world, I know that bad things can happen to good, innocent people close to home. Brothers in Hope keeps the most grisly violence off the page, and while there are scary parts throughout the book, the story does an excellent job of emphasizing the fact that when faced with the most dire of circumstances, the boys organized, stuck together, and looked out for one another. The boys became a family in the absence of family, and what they accomplished is a testament to children’s courage and the inner strength that enabled them to face insurmountable odds and survive. Brothers in Hope is a sad story, but it teaches children about the world we live in and shows that even acts of extreme cruelty can lead to amazing acts of grace.
I had an interesting discussion the other day. Let me just start off by saying that I feel pretty strongly anti-censorship and would never advocate the banning of books. But I was speaking with a friend about the second Twilight installment and how uncomfortable it made me. At the beginning, Vampire Edward leaves Bella, after which she spends a year putting herself in all kinds of danger just to bring him back. She actually comes close to killing herself so he’ll come back to her. That is not OK with me. I said to my friend, “I’m afraid that teen girls will look at Bella as a role model and see this as an ideal relationship,” and it seemed to me that this was a story that could do real damage to readers.
There’s an interesting discussion going on over at January Magazine this week about whether we should establish a ratings system for books. The blogger over there, Tony, read an upcoming YA book billed for ages 14 and up. But some 70 pages in, Tony discovered content that he felt was a little, um, mature for the average 14-year-old reader:
“14 and up, I thought. 14 and up? 14 and up?! To me, ’14 and up’ is just another way of saying PG-13. . . . As the father of boys aged 13 and 9, who both love to read, I am now officially worried. Is this the stuff of books for Young Readers? For 14 and up?”
In the professional world of books, made up of librarians and publishers and booksellers, any complaint about the appropriateness of content tends to illicit a knee-jerk reaction and cry of censorship. And, frankly, when people are removing dictionaries from schools because they contain definitions of words that parents deem inappropriate, it’s not hard to see why. But Tony has a sensible argument: Shouldn’t there at least be some sort of rating so readers know what they are getting themselves into?
For the first time in its thirteen year history, the Young People’s Literature category of the National Book Award recognized a work of nonfiction:¹ Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justiceby Phillip Hoose. It’s great to see children’s nonfiction getting more recognition, both because nonfiction can have just as much literary merit as fiction, and because kids need ways to explore and discover the world, past and present. And behind every great work of nonfiction is a true, and truly great, story. Without that truth, it’s not nonfiction. Nonfiction is more than just facts, but it needs facts.
But what if fact becomes fiction, or fiction is presented as fact?
We’ll start things out with the bad news: a justice of the peace in Louisiana refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. His justification? That any children the couple had might suffer discrimination. A quick history review: it was 1967 when the U.S. Supreme court ruled in the case Loving v. Virginia that race-based legal restrictions on marriage are unconstitutional. In other marriage-relate news, same-sex couples can still only get married in six states.
In April 2003, researchers completed their analysis of the human genome project. They confirmed that all human beings were 99.9% genetically identical. While science has proven we are nearly the same, why do we continue to judge people based on our perceived differences? Race, religion, politics, meat eaters vs. non-meat eaters—the list is endless. Our life experiences shape us more than the innate sensibilities with which we are born. History also documents the injustices we have bestowed upon each other as a result of deep resentments that have accumulated between groups of people. So while our bodies are the same, our brains—our minds and perceptions—divide us from one another. Ironically, our brains are also the difference between us and the animals who act on instinct alone.
A few nights ago I was having dinner with a friend who doesn’t work in publishing, and I was talking about how I think librarians are really great and I’m always impressed by the thoughtful ways in which they grapple with some truly tough issues.
“Er…like what?” he asked.
So I gave him this example from the NY Times about the Brooklyn Public Library’s recent decision to basically quarantine Tintin au Congo, a 70-year-old picture book with some pretty racist cartoons: