Avid reader that I am, until recently I was unaware that the last week of September each year is Banned Books Week. According to Wikipedia, this annual campaign in the United States “stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them,” while the international campaign notes individuals “persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate or read.”
To mark the occasion, last night I attended “Uncensored Voices: Celebrating Literary Freedom” at the Clark County Library in Las Vegas. The event was cosponsored by the ACLU, Vegas Valley Book Festival, Black Mountain Institute and Las Vegas – Clark County Library District.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Dane Claussen from the ACLU of Nevada noted the correlation between our first amendment right of freedom of expression and censorship. Several post-World War I era U.S. Supreme Court decisions have served as the basis for this. For example, in the 1937 case Palko v. Connecticut, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo reasoned, “Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.”
At last night’s event, nine people read from books that have been previously banned or challenged. Even more interesting than the actual readings themselves was the discussion and background on why these books were controversial.
For example, the young adult novel The Bridge to Terabithia is controversial because it uses language such as “O, Lord” and “Hell” (in actual reference to the place), and because it is a fantasy fiction novel that creates a make-believe world that may cause confusion amongst readers. One of my favorite books as a child, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is perceived by some to be too sexual (the narrator talks frankly about her experiences with puberty) and anti-Christian. While Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer has some pretty strong language and sexual scenes, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has recently been extensively edited to replace the over 200 instances of the word “nigger” with the word “slave.”
Interestingly, in the past 10 years U.S. libraries have been faced with over 4,500 challenges on books, most commonly due to “sexually explicit” materials, “offensive language” or the material deemed “unsuited to age group.” Likewise, conservative groups like Focus on the Family frequently challenge books they perceive as “anti-family.”
In 2010, the top 5 most frequently challenged books were:
1. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson — A children’s book featuring penguin parents in a same-sex relationship
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — A National Book Award Winner and semi-autobiographical novel about life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. This young adult novel deals with issues of racism, poverty and the following of tradition.
3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley — A 1931 science-fiction novel set in AD 2540 that explores reproductive technology and sleep-learning.
4. Crank by Ellen Hopkins — A young adult novel that explores issues such as rape, lesbianism and drug addiction.
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — A young adult science fiction novel inspired by reality TV, the Iraq War and the Greek myth of Theseus.
I must admit that I’ve fallen behind in my reading lately, but I’m thinking perhaps my next set of book reviews could be on previously banned or challenged books. Certainly with all of the young adult books on the list this could make for interesting discussion.