Christopher M. Finan: Books Still Burn Here
September 30, 2008
Today's post, by Christopher M. Finan, honors Banned Books Week. Finan is president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the bookseller's voice in the fight against censorship. He is the author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, which recently received the American Library Association's Eli Oboler Award for the best book on intellectual freedom in 2006 and 2007.
Some people will yawn at hearing that Saturday was the beginning of the 27th Annual Banned Books Week.
The story is the same every year, isn't it? Hundreds of titles are challenged in schools and libraries around the country. In 2007, the number was 420. This is fewer than the year before, but the number has fluctuated widely since the launch of Banned Books Week in 1982. The average is around 500.
Even the book at the top of the hit list is the same as last year–And Tango Makes Three, a childrens book that has been condemned as "pro-homosexual" and "anti-family" because it tells the story of two male penguins caring for an egg.
But this apparent sameness masks what is really going on. Behind the numbers are a lot of angry people–censors demanding the removal of books that offend them; teachers and librarians upset at finding themselves accused of trying to hurt kids, and the kids themselves caught in the crossfire.
Book banning is an old story, but it is new and often intensely painful for the people who experience it for the first time.
In Indianapolis, a complaint led school officials to pull Erin Gruwell's Freedom Writer's Diary from the hands of high school juniors despite the fact that their parents had signed permission slips authorizing them to read it.
In Smithfield, North Carolina, a school district ignored the recommendation of its own review committee and banned Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents for its sexual themes. In the future, the district will use lists of challenged titles to "weed out" potentially troublesome works.
In Westhampton Beach, New York, a group of parents challenged the inclusion of Jodi Picoult's The Tenth Circle and James Patterson's Cradle and All on an optional reading list for ninth graders because of their sexual content. Despite the fact that no one was being forced to read them, the school board voted to delete the titles from the list.
But these victories by the censors are no reason for despair. The only thing to fear is that people who oppose censorship will stop fighting, and there is no sign of that.
In Westhampton Beach, a bookseller led the opposition. Terry Lucas, owner of The Open Book, spoke out against the proposed ban at a school board meeting and organized a "read-in" at her store involving a number of students from the Westhampton Beach High School. You can read more about Terry's efforts and also view a student-made video of the protest here.
Students joined their English teacher in the fight against the banning of Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides and Beach Music in Charleston, West Virginia. The books were returned to the high school after they were endorsed by a review committee but not before Conroy himself weighed in to the controversy at the request of a student. "Book banners are invariably idiots, they don't know how the world works–-but writers and English teachers do," Conroy wrote to the Charleston Gazette. His letter is available here.
Nor are local people alone in their fight. They have long had the support of groups like the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Last year, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression joined NCAC in launching the Kids' Right to Read Project, which has opposed challenges to 64 titles in 23 states.
The publishing industry also plays an important role. The Association of American Publishers supports the First Amendment through its Freedom to Read Committee, and Random House recently devoted an entire issue of RHI, Inc., a publication for educators, to the subject of censorship. (The magazine is online at http://www.randomhouse.com/highschool/rhi.)
There is also a new Web site that makes it easy for people to find Banned Books Week events in their areas, www.bannedbooksweek.com.
So, stifle that yawn. Find a bookstore or library in your area and celebrate your freedom to read!