Banned Books Week, which takes place this year between September 25 and October 1, is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the freedom to share and express ideas. It draws attention to the problems and harms of censorship. Part of the celebration of this week is that while books continue to be challenged and banned, the majority of cases result in the book in question remaining available, thanks to people who speak up for the freedom to read – in the United States, a freedom falling under the First Amendment protection of expression. The focus of Banned Books Week is frequently on the challenged books for children and young adults, as book challenges often arise as the result of parents raising questions regarding age-appropriate material. That said, books may be banned or challenged for a variety of reasons.
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. — American Library Association
There are some bans put in place regarding publication and distribution at the government level. Here in the US, books involving child pornography are banned, while some countries in Europe place strict limitations on books involving hate speech. Some countries place bans on authors, ideas, or titles promoting political or religious views considered threatening to the state and the populace at large. For instance, until it entered the public domain this year, publishing Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was banned in Germany.
The most frequent topic discussed during Banned Books week is the challenging of books in public and school libraries, usually on grounds of age appropriateness. Sometimes this involves sexual activity in the book, and sometimes involves sexual or gender identity. Tango Makes Three is a famous example of a picture book that was the subject of debate. Based on a true story, it tells about a pair of male penguins who started to build a nest together in the way that generally happens with a male-female pair preparing to lay an egg. After watching the male penguins sit on a rock as though trying to hatch it, the zookeepers snuck an abandoned penguin egg into the nest. It hatched and the chick was named Tango. This story was challenged repeatedly because of the apparent same-sex relationship between the parent penguins, seen by some parents as inappropriate for young children.
Other topics for banning include offensive language, violence, racism, or political or religious viewpoints. Some examples of these include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.
While Banned Books Week is a 20th-century creation of the American Library Association, banning books is not new. In the ninth century of the common era, the Catholic Church created the first version of what has come to be known as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (known in various incarnations as the Decretem Glasianum, the Pauline Index, and the Tridentine Index). The Index was a list of texts and publications considered dangerous to the faith and morals of the faithful, often seen as heretical, anti-clerical, or lascivious. It was formally abolished on June 14, 1966 by Pope Paul VI. At the height of the Index in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, many of the books listed were related to new discoveries and theories of science, philosophy, and politics. Authors could be banned in entirety, at the most extreme, or have passages of their works redacted. Sometimes topics received a blanket ban, such as heliocentrism. Some of the bans put in place during this time period were still in place in the final published edition of the Index in 1948, including the complete works of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Sometimes bans take the form of limitations on publication and freedom of the press. Licenses for publishing have come up on this blog before as precursors to copyright law as we know it. In 1644, during the English Civil War, John Milton (of Paradise Lost fame) published a polemical tract entitled Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament [sic] of England. It is still considered one of the most important defenses of the principle of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in world history. Many of the arguments presented still support our modern ideas of freedom of expression and printing.
Another notable government censorship policy can be found in Ancien Régime France, especially during the Enlightenment years leading up to the revolution in 1789. There was an entire industry of aspiring authors and philosophers who came to Paris and other municipal centers, trying to make their fortune in the world of letters, who instead fell into a cash-poor but vibrant community producing illegal literature: vitriolic pamphlets, libels, scandalous tales, and other writings intended to tarnish and refute the social order of their world. Though they had to remain largely anonymous and traceless in order to avoid prosecution in their day, they have in large part been resurrected by the efforts of noted cultural historian Robert Darnton, who sees their work as fundamental to understanding the origins of the French Revolution.
And that’s really one of the important points, isn’t it? Even when books are challenged or banned, they continue to be produced and distributed, even if it’s illegal or culturally frowned-upon to do so. Banned books are important for many reasons. Aside from their purpose in challenging the status quo and promoting new or unpopular ideas, we can understand more about the context in which they were banned – what was considered undesirable, frightening, or immoral in that time and place.
THE MOST BANNED BOOKS OF 2015 (via ala.org)
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and other (“poorly written,” “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”).
I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
Reasons: Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group.
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin
Reasons: Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”).
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Reasons: Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“profanity and atheism”).
The Holy Bible
Reasons: Religious viewpoint.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Reasons: Violence and other (“graphic images”).
Habibi, by Craig Thompson
Reasons: Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter
Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, and violence.
10 Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan
Reasons: Homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”).
SOME OTHER RESOURCES
Banned Books Week on ALA.org
Freedom to Read Week website (Canada)
Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime
Kathryn Lasky, Memoirs of a Bookbat