Happy Banned Books Week dear readers! Started back in 1982, Banned Books Week is an annual event meant to celebrate freedom of speech while also generating a discussion about the censorship of written and printed word, and why that might not be all that great of a thing. Banning books has been an ever-persistent problem in the United States, and according to the American Library Association *at least* 464 complaints being filed to remove books from libraries or schools in 2012 alone. That is a depressingly high number, and isn’t even counting the ones filed this year! So what are some of the books that people were trying to get removed from the shelves? A few of the titles might surprise you.
This one has been in headlines for the last couple of weeks. Just this month (this month!), Randolph County school board in North Carolina voted to ban Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man after Kimiyutta Parson, the mother of an 11th grader who read the book after it was included in a class reading list, complained that it was “filthy.” As she wrote in her 12-page document outlining the (many) reasons why she wanted the book banned,
The narrator writes in the first person, emphasizing his individual experiences and his feelings about the events portrayed in his life. This novel is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers. You must respect all religions and point of views when it comes to the parents and what they feel is age appropriate for their young children to read, without their knowledge. This book is freely in your library for them to read.
Parson also complained about the language used in the book and said that it was “too sexual.”
The board voted 5-2 to remove all copies of Invisible Man from school libraries, disregarding arguments by committees at both the school and district levels to not ban it. One of the board members in favor of the decision to ban the book said that “it was a hard read” when asked if everyone on the board had read the book (does that mean no?), while another said that he “didn’t find any literary value” in it (…um…okay…).
The book is still available in county libraries, however, just not in school ones, and the board is reportedly going to reconsider its decision, possibly due to the national backlash they’ve received.
*UPDATE* According to Salon magazine, local bookstore Books-a-Million will be offering free copies of Invisible Man to every Randolph County high school student who wants one, copies which had been donated to the store by the book’s publisher, Vintage Books, along with donations from Asheboro’s public libraries. The store manager says that local adults and even a few out of towners have been buying additional copies of the book to add to the donation pile as well. Go Books-a-Million!
The Handmaid’s Tale
In another North Carolina county, this time Guilford County, a parent petitioned last fall for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to be removed from an advanced placement reading list for high school students, saying that its content was “detrimental to Christian values,” as well as being “sexually explicit, violently graphic, and morally corrupt.” The parent didn’t, however, ask that it be removed from school libraries. In another 5-2 vote, the school board voted this month to not only keep the dystopian novel in school libraries, but also to keep it on the recommended reading list. Go Guilford County school board!
The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner was in danger of being removed from an optional reading list for 10th grade honors classes in Troy, Pennsylvania. According to district superintendent W. Charles Young, they’d received complaints from parents regarding the book’s graphic homosexual rape scene and its vulgar language. The school board’s vote in March 2012 ended in a 4-4 tie, which (apparently) counted as a defeat and meant that the book was not approved.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been making a whole lot of people twitchy, it seems, and has been ranked #2 on ALA’s list of the top ten most challenged books of 2012. According to a report by the ALA, at least three different freshmen English classes at Westfield New Jersey High School protested this Sherman Alexie YA novel in 2012. The argument was that,
some very sensitive material in the book including excerpts on masturbation amongst other explicit sexual references, encouraging pornography, racism, religious irreverence, and strong language (including the f- and n-words).
The Westfield Board of Education eventually voted to have the book remain an optional book for 9th grade English teachers to use in their curriculum, saying also that there are no “required” books in the English department apart from the ones the English teachers choose to assign to their classes.
Westfield wasn’t the only district to take issue with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, however; parents the West Valley School District in Yakima, Washington also challenged the book’s inclusion to their schools’ upperclassmen curriculum. They also sited the book’s sexual references and profanity as reasons why it was inappropriate for high school students. The West Valley School District Instructional Materials Committee voted in January 2013 to keep the novel on West Valley High’s reading list.
Eleanor & Park
Rainbow Rowell’s YA book is the target of the Parents Action League in Anoka County, Minnesota, who are trying to get it removed from high schools due to its “extreme profanity and age inappropriate subject matter.” This story has garnered nation-wide attention this past month, with outlets like Book Riot, The Toast, and even NPR coming out to defend the book and protest the PAL’s challenge. While Eleanor & Park hasn’t been removed from the curriculum in Anoka County yet, the PAL was able to get Rowell’s scheduled author visit canceled.
“Captain Underpants” series
Yes, I was surprised to see this one too. Apparently a regular instigator of controversy at schools and libraries, Dav Pilkey’s children’s series Captain Underpants came in as ALA’s number one most challenged book in 2012. It beat out Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, which deals with teen suicide. The reason why Captain Underpants is so offensive? It contains offensive language and its content is considered “unsuitable for age group.”