Yesterday, Banned Books Week 2014 officially began. This is a celebration of challenged and banned literature. The freedom to read without censorship is important and Banned Books Week shines a light on historical and contemporary challenges to literature. The American Library Association puts out excellent information about banned and challenged books. This year, Robert P. Doyle and the Illinois Library Association designed the annual Challenged and Banned Books guide and it features highlights from academic and library challenges to literature.
I scanned through the list and decided to focus on the titles I've actually read before for this post.
The Absolute True-Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
This moving novel about a Native American boy fighting for the opportunity to attend the public school miles away from his home reservation is, sadly, a frequently challenged book in America. The guidebook points out an incident in Queens where the book was removed from the middle school reading list because of masturbation. That's an unusual challenge.
The more common challenge is included in the other reported incidents. Parents object to the racist and foul language in the book, claiming it is demeaning to Native Americans. It's just a cover to get rid of the book because it makes the parents uncomfortable. Sherman Alexie is a Native American author and the racist language included in the book is meant to shock the reader into action, not encourage racist behavior. This is the typical case of parents trying to shelter their children from things they've already been exposed to (and much worse) in school.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Though the guide only mentions one challenge to Margaret Atwood's seminal dystopian novel about a world taken over by Christian fundamentalists who believe women are property and deserve no rights, the challenge is the standard talking point against the book. Parents attempted to have the book removed from the optional reading list for an Advanced Placement class in a North Carolina high school because the novel contained sex, violence, and immorality.
The clarification is where this novel really tends to hit people hard. It's that critical reading of Christianity combined with sexual intercourse (the titular handmaid's worth in society is determined by whether or not she can produce a child for a randomly assigned male figure) that makes it so aggravating for them. It might be "detrimental to Christian values," even though Atwood lines out how an extreme and flawed reading of the Bible could lead to such a society. The book was retained at the school as an optional reading assignment.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This is an example of the most common type of ban or challenge. There was a failed challenge in North Carolina last year where parents objected to the foul language in the novel. Apparently, the cultural, historical, and literary significance of the text means nothing if someone swears. Perish the thought and perish the ban; the school did the right thing and retained the book on its high school reading list.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
This is the other most common type of ban or challenge. Heaven forbid that certain parts of the human anatomy be discussed at all in school. For some parents in a Michigan town, Anne Frank's exploration of her body meant challenging an important historical text from being used in school at all. The school wisely rejected the challenge and middle school children are still allowed to learn about the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust through the eyes of a girl their own age.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is, sadly, one of the most challenged authors in America. If people aren't objecting to The Bluest Eye, they're fighting against Beloved. The Bluest Eye is the heart-wrenching tale of a young girl who grows to hate herself because of her dark skin and dark eyes. While this happens, her drunken father begins to take advantage of her insecurities and sexually assault her. It's a powerful text about self image and society that advanced literature students should be able to discuss in an academic environment.
The first challenge listed is the saddest one in the entire guide book this year. A Colorado high school received a challenge to The Bluest Eye because it was a "bad book." Think about that. Parents successfully petitioned for an alternate reading assignment (that only six out of 150 students chose) because they thought it was a "bad book." No other explanation necessary. That's the lowest of the low. Usually, the book is challenged because of the problematic sexual content or racism, which are essential themes in the novel. But these parents succeeded just on opinion alone.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
The ban on Persepolis is an odd one on the list (though not unheard of in recent events). This ban came from the school board itself. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir about coming of age in Iran, was pulled from all public schools in Chicago. The school board decided without outside influence that the book was too graphic and had foul language, so no student in the district was mature enough to read it.
This ban has a happy ending. The students fought back. They took to social media and checked out every copy of the book in the library. A media firestorm started and the Chicago school system had no choice but to reverse the ban. The irony of banning a book about freedom of speech was not lost on these students and they fought for what was right.
You, too, can make a difference during Banned Books Week. Read a banned or challenged book. Share stories and information about Banned Books Week on social media, with your family and friends, and even in your classrooms. Support organizations that help run Banned Books Week and fight against literary censorship year round. And, for goodness sake, if you ever hear about a challenge to material in your local schools or library, do the right thing and make your voice heard.