The American Library Association (ALA) is one of several sponsors of Banned Books Week, the purpose of which is “to celebrate the freedom to read.” A few other organizations that also sponsor this week are the National Council of Teachers of English, American Booksellers, and the American Society of Journalism and Authors.
The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks attempts to ban or restrict books. During calendar year 2020, 273 books were challenged or banned.
The defining principle of what qualifies as a challenged or banned book is “an attempt to remove or restrict materials based on the objections of a person or group.” Banning is the actual removal of the materials.
It’s important to note the difference in, let’s say, a parent telling a school principal that she doesn’t want her child reading a particular book. It is going that extra mile and saying that she doesn’t want anyone else’s child reading it either that makes it an attempt to ban.
Often people want to ban a piece of writing without actually having read it. One experience I had was when I was English Division Chair at Delta College. I was yanked out of one meeting and completely ambushed in another meeting involving two parents, one student, and an academic dean. The parents (not a great look anyway for college students who want to complain) were there to object to a required reading of an English Division faculty member, a professor whose forty years or so of teaching had never garnered a complaint. He had no idea and wasn’t in the room.
The objection was to a standard anthologized essay called “Why I Want a Wife,” by Judith Syfers, published in 1971 by New York Magazine. It is a humorous piece satirizing the gender roles of husband and wife where the woman writer basically says who wouldn’t want a wife? Someone who cooks and cleans and organizes and takes primary responsibility for raising children would be a great person to have around.
The objection in this case was to a woman writing about wanting a wife and the presumption of some gay agenda which wasn’t the case, but no one had read it. No one including the student had talked to the teacher about this. Book discussions can often defuse such issues.
People tend not to like that which offends them. In a library, one can simply keep looking and find a book they like. In college, one can often find a reading list in advance. But changing things for everyone (which is what banning does) is extreme. And we can all try something once in a while that asks us to look at another point of view.
Here’s the list of the top ten books in numbers of attempts to ban them during 2020. Every one of these books can be easily reserved for you through our new Library app. I checked each one. Many are relatively new books, but a few are oldies. What caused objections fifty years ago might be completely different than what causes objections today. Here they are with no summary:
1) George by Alex Gino.
2) Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi.
3) All American Boys by Jason Reynolds et al.
4) Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.
5) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
6) Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano et al.
7) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
8) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
9) The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
10) The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas.
Maybe next year’s reading challenge can include an optional square to read a book you’re positive will offend you or pick something off a banned books list. Enjoy your freedom to read.
See you at the Library!
(By Roz Weedman for publication in the Frankenmuth News on September 29, 2021.)