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Friday, September 30, 2011

Why We Still Need Banned Books Week

By Carol Baicker-McKee

Most Challenged Book of 2010
 First a few notes:
1. All the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily those of anyone else who writes for this blog.

2. In fact, these opinions are definitely not those of Cynthia Light Brown, whose post immediately preceding this one (Why Banned Books Week Needs Some Rethinking) takes the opposing view. I strongly suggest you read it along with mine, if you haven't already.

3. I know Cynthia well and like and respect her. She is one of the smartest, most thoughtful women I know - and she's an outstanding writer and excellent parent to boot. I am grateful that we can disagree about issues important to us and still remain friends. I am also grateful that she makes me think and reexamine my positions - and sometimes change my mind.

 Cynthia wrote that Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association, makes her mentally roll her eyes for several reasons. She raises some interesting concerns worth contemplating.

Cynthia first argues that the language surrounding the event is misused, that true censorship does not exist in the United States today - even if a particular book is removed from a school's curriculum or library, it is still available for purchase. In a sense, she's right. With exceptions for materials like child pornography, books today are not openly prohibited by most western governments or booksellers.

Second Most Challenged Book of 2010
 But as a midlist writer who struggles to get her books known, I can tell you that being excluded from schools or libraries does create a more subtle form of censorship. With the near-demise of brick and mortar bookstores, the shrinking of review outlets and the mountains of media available for consumption, schools and libraries play critical roles in bringing books to the attention of readers; what readers don't know exists, they of course won't read. (Though ironically, being challenged can increase a book's profile and eventual popularity). And even if potential readers know about a particular book and are interested, many will choose something else instead if they must buy it; after all, there are many other good books available free through the library. Some readers, particularly in these tough economic times, may not be able to afford it. And other readers will avoid excellent books - like the classic below - that they would read and love if compelled to at school - because they perceive them as likely to be too difficult or boring to attempt on their own.

Third Most Challenged Book of 2010
 Even more importantly, schools and libraries are such important markets to many publishers that if schools won't buy certain types of books, publishers won't publish them. Furthermore, many writers in turn will self-censor what they write so as to invest their efforts in something publishable. In this way, the preferences of a minority can in fact shape the kinds of books available to everyone.

Cynthia also notes, correctly, that the number of recorded challenges last year was miniscule, particularly in comparison to the number of schools and readers. I can only reiterate what ALA says, which is that we know the recorded challenges are only the tip of the iceberg - and speculate that were it not for events like Banned Books Week and the determination of librarians, teachers and booksellers to defend challenged books there might be many, many more challenges, including many more successful ones, and recognize that realistically a fair bit of "censorship" probably has happened at every stage of the process from writing and editorial to purchase and use-decisions. (I do understand Cynthia's point that many parents also choose not to challenge books that make them uncomfortable, but in the absence of numbers, my own sense is that unreported challenges greatly outnumber uncomfortable parents.)

Fourth Most Challenged Book of 2011
 Here is the part of Cynthia's post that gives me the most pause:

But my biggest problem with Banned Books Week is that it actually creates a climate that suppresses the voicing of opinions. The not-quite-said message is that anyone who challenges a book is a lunatic, and books should NEVER be challenged....Most challenges are related directly or indirectly to the suitability of books for kids. Here is the crux of the question for me: Who gets to decide what kids read?

I do support the right of parents to be active participants in their children's educations and I like the idea of local control of public schools. As a writer and illustrator I count on books to be powerful - to change people's attitudes and lives. As a result, the idea of questioning a book that a child will read, especially be compelled to read and discuss in the classroom, is not completely crazy to me.

I particularly feel sympathy toward parents of young children, who of course should monitor their youngster's media consumption. I also sympathize with parents who might have a special concern about their child or a cohort of kids. For example, in the immediate aftermath of a school shooting, it wouldn't be nuts for parents to prefer not to have an entire grade forced to read and discuss Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes about a school massacre. One of my favorite authors even censored himself: Terry Pratchett delayed the release of his YA novel Nation about a young man who is the sole survivor of a tsunami when it was due to be released just after the Indonesian tsunami; the timing seemed disrespectful to him.

Fifth Most Challenged Book of 2010
 The problem, though, is that most of the challenges do not fall  into these reasonable situations. First, while parents should have input about the books used in schools or bought for libraries - and most of the time they can - it seems reasonable to me that the ultimate decisions should be made not by a narrow group of vocal parents but by the representatives who are charged with balancing the needs of the whole community. In most communities, the "choosers" - teachers, administrators, librarians, school boards - are folks who know kids, literature and their communities well and who have the best interests of all the kids at heart. Will that mean that some parents are unhappy at times? Undoubtedly - but living as part of a community requires all of us to make compromises and at times to fail to have things the way we prefer. I'm sure it's a rare parent who never objects to any material or teaching approach. And most of the time the best way to deal with it will  not be to insist it be changed, but to talk with your kid about the materials and situation.
The Top Five Challenged Books of 2010 I've shown (see the whole Top Ten list here) are critically acclaimed books with well-recognized literary merit.  Do they deal with difficult subjects? Of course - good literature does. But they do so in ways intended to make people think, to grow in ways that help them become better individuals and better citizens. (And nearly all the most-challenged books are aimed at adolescents, who by and large have the experience and maturity to grapple with challenging ideas.)

My biggest concern is that the parents and organizations who lodge most of the challenges tend to be perhaps not lunatic, but often woefully uninformed. Friends who are on school boards or work in libraries tell me most of the parents who file complaints have never actually read the books in question; either they have "heard" that the books contain objectionable material or they have read a passage taken out of context either of the book's overall message or the classroom discussion. And context matters.

In the end, it's ironic that Cynthia feels like Banned Books Week silences parents who want to have a say in what their kids read; but for Banned Books Week, I doubt I'd have learned her thoughts about censorship and kids. And I'm quite sure I wouldn't have spent nearly so many hours thinking about or discussing it.

What are your thoughts about Banned Books Week and kids?

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