September 22 – 28 is Banned Books Week, a week that sometimes stirs up controversy and sometimes raises questions about just what a banned book is, who’s doing the banning and why. So, here’s the story.
Banned Books Week is organized by the American Library Association in partnership with a number of other organizations, including book publishers, book sellers and writers, and its purpose is to remind us to cherish and safeguard rights which are bestowed upon us by the First Amendment.
Over the years, one of the ways Banned Books Week organizers have conveyed their message is by publishing a list of Banned Books. These are books which , during the course of the year, someone has tried to keep someone else from reading – usually by asking that a book that they find offensive be moved from one part of the library to another (such as from the children’s area to the adult area), or to be removed from the library altogether.
Banned Books Week organizers highlight this brand of censorship because they believe it conflicts with the spirit of the law and because censorship is scary to people who live in a democratic society where intellectual freedom is not only a right, but where an informed citizenry is a necessity. At least, that’s what our nation’s founders believed.
The majority of recent book banning instances documented by the American Library Association are cases in which schools have been asked by parents or concerned citizens to remove certain books from classrooms and school libraries, or to take them off required reading lists. According to American Libraries magazine, the most frequently challenged books “reflect a concern with violence, sexual content, language, and particularly racial slurs and profanity, as well as references to witchcraft. “
This issue intensified three decades ago when an organization called Family Friendly Libraries began challenging policies regarding children’s unrestricted access to public library resources. FFL says it has a right to question the material children are exposed to in tax-supported institutions. Their critics say that FFL wants to use public schools and public libraries to advance their own social agenda.
In taking a stand against censorship, librarians and book producers are not trying to corrupt America’s children. They make an issue of this because distributing literature is their job, and because they believe that once it becomes acceptable to prohibit books that contain nasty words or unsavory ideas, the definition of “nasty” and “unsavory” becomes open to interpretation by anyone with a point of view. You know, the old slippery slope: first, out goes Henry Miller; next it’s Little Bo Peep.
At the Monterey Public Library, we applaud concerned parents and encourage them to instruct their children in their own family’s values, beliefs and standards; to participate in choosing their own child’s reading material; and to set whatever limits on library use they decide is appropriate for their own child. We have trained staff who can assist families with the selection of material and to guide them to age appropriate reading. But we ask each family to enforce its own specific rules regarding their children’s use of the Library, and not expect the Library to impose those rules on others.
It’s unfortunate that some people see only the dark side of the opposing viewpoints on this battleground of good intentions. After all, what could be healthier than citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to bring into the public debate an issue that directly affects their lives? It’s when we allow an opposing voice to be silenced that we’ve got a problem.
Over the years, all around the world, many perfectly good books – and a few not-so-good ones – have been outlawed, confiscated, even destroyed. Here are just a few examples of book banning that have been reported over the years.
•In 1905, the New York City Public Library excluded Huckleberry Finn from the children’s room – not because of racially insensitive words, but because Huck not only “itched” but “scratched” and said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.”
•In 1929, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan was banned from the Los Angeles Public Library because Tarzan was allegedly “living in sin” with Jane.
•Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned in China in 1931 because “animals should not use human language.”
•John Steinbeck has been a censor’s dream, or nightmare, depending on how you look at things. East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Wayward Bus, The Red Pony, and In Dubious Battle have all been banned or challenged at various times and in various places. In a display of…well, wrath over the book’s “vulgarity,” the St. Louis, Mo. Public Library actually burned The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.
•In 1985, the Stupids Step Out was removed from an elementary school in Vancouver, Washington because it made parents “look like boobs.”
•In 1990, the Culver City schools banned Little Red Riding Hood because the bottle wine that Red was carrying to Grandma’s seemed to “condone the use of alcohol.”
•Jane Smiley’s AThousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1991, was banned in the Lynden, Washington High School for having “no literary value in our community.”
•Rudyards Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child was challenged in Davenport, Iowa in 1993 because someone objected to the young elephant getting spanked.
•Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was removed from the Anaheim Union High School English classrooms in 1984 for being offensive to African Americans.
•Taro Yashima’s Crow Boy was challenged in Queens, N.Y. in 1994, for being offensive to Caucasians.
•Jean Stratton Porter’s Her Father’s Daughter was removed from the Clatskanie, Oregon Library in 1992 for being offensive to Japanese-Americans.
•Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie was removed from elementary school libraries in Sturgis, South Dakota in 1993 for being offensive to Native Americans.
•Andrew Rikers’ Married Life was challenged in Jefferson County, Kentucky in 1982 for being offensive to women.
•A history textbook entitled Portrait of America was challenged in Racine, Wisconsin for being offensive to Republicans.
•Just about everything ever written by Stephen King has been challenged somewhere in the U.S., but Cujo was officially removed from the shelves of the Bradford, N.Y. school libraries in 1985 because, as school officials put it, “It was a bunch of garbage.”
•In 2010, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the State Board of Education tossed Bill Martin, Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? because they had confused the author of the children’s picture book with another Bill Martin who wrote a book called Ethical Marxism which contains, “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American System.”
History is rife with book banning, but probably the single most bizarre case on record involves a man named Cazimir Liscinski, who was burned to death in Poland in 1689 for writing a book in which he put forth the notion that God was invented by man. After his incineration, his ashes were put into a cannon and shot into the air. That put a stop to his writing.
A fundamental part of the Monterey Public Library’s mission is to provide access to reading material and information that reflects a wide range of viewpoints for people of all ages, beliefs and backgrounds. Books are meant to inform, instruct, enlighten and to entertain, and the Library takes seriously its responsibility to provide a balanced collection.
We don’t claim that every book in the Library is going to challenge your intellect, please your sensibilities or validate your point of view. In fact, we can just about guarantee that the Library has something to offend just about everyone. But the bottom line is, if you want to read it, you’ve got the right.