Whenever I hear the phrase “banned books,” I think of Harry Potter.
When I worked as a reporter at a local newspaper, we frequently printed stories about a school board’s periodic attempts to pull J.K. Rowling’s series off library shelves, I suppose because they thought the books would lure unsuspecting students into the practice of witchcraft.
(This line of thinking is something I’ve never understood, and if you ever do figure out how to make the spells of the wizarding world work in the real world, please let me know. I’d mostly like to use them to do dishes and laundry.)
I guess when it comes to books being banished from institutions such as libraries and schools, Harry Potter comes to my mind because the series is one of the most beloved in all of fandom. The wizarding world is so popular among geek folk, virtually everyone can tell you their Hogwarts house, along with firm opinions about which books they love and which movies they don’t.
If naysayers can constantly threaten to erase these seven books, among the best-selling and most adored works of fiction of all time, what other stories could they loudly — or, more often it seems, quietly — relegate to the ash heap of ideas that make some people uncomfortable?
What’s even more disturbing is that Harry Potter is just a drop in the bucket when you consider the long history of banned and challenged books.
The American Library Association defines a challenge to a book as “an attempt to remove or restrict materials based upon the objections of a person or group.” Banning is considered “the removal of those materials.”
Fortunately, there are several organizations standing as a line of defense against this practice, which threatens First Amendment rights, freedom of expression, access to information and ideas and, potentially, the development of empathy and a love of reading in young people.
A coalition of 14 of these groups sponsors the annual Banned Books Week, which was founded in 1982 after what coordinator Betsy Gomez describes as a “sudden surge” in challenges to volumes in schools, bookstores, and libraries.
The annual event celebrates “ideas and the freedom to express and share those ideas,” Gomez said. This year’s installment kicked off yesterday and will continue through Saturday, Sept. 29, with the theme “Banning Books Silences Stories.”
The week unites librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, readers, and creators for activities across the country, online, and in the United Kingdom, including letter writing campaigns, webinars, livestreams, “read outs,” seminars, performances, and talks, Gomez said.
As Banned Books Week Coordinator, Gomez designs and edits a handbook that gives users tools to celebrate the week and “stand up to censorship.” She also helps write articles, monitor social media, and maintain the Banned Books Week website, an excellent resource for anyone who wants to get involved.
“Books are vessels for ideas, and sometimes people are uncomfortable with or don’t agree with those ideas, so they challenge others’ access to them,” Gomez said.
Any type of reading material, from plays to religious texts, can be targeted with challenges and bans, she added.
“Books are challenged over sexual content, profanity, age appropriateness, violence, religious viewpoint, LGBTQ content, political bias, drug and alcohol use, suicide, and much more.”
Gomez said the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom “tracks hundreds of challenges and bans each year, and the actual number is probably much larger because censorship is underreported. Most libraries and schools have challenge policies, and most challenges fail. But challenges that happen in a vacuum — when people and free speech advocates don’t find out about them — more often result in a ban.”
While certain classics, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” are known for being routinely challenged or banned, geeks who are wondering how censorship might affect them need look no further than the lists of “most challenged” works, recent and past, compiled by the ALA.
The lists include comic books, graphic novels, and a compelling number of tomes geeks hold dear, including “Saga,” the works of Neil Gaiman, “Bone,” the aforementioned Harry Potter books, “His Dark Materials,” “The Giver,” “Brave New World,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and the Goosebumps series.
The ALA’s list of Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017 includes the acclaimed graphic novel “Drama,” along with YA novel turned Netflix show “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” as well as oft-challenged works “The Kite Runner” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Comic books and graphic novels are actually challenged frequently enough that there exists an organization devoted to defending these works and their creators from the threat of censorship. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund maintains a presence at many comic and fan conventions, so you may have run across their booth at one of these events.
CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein began volunteering with the nonprofit organization in 2000 and now oversees its legal, educational, administrative, and fundraising work. The group’s board of directors includes creators, retailers, publishers, educators, and executives in the comics industry.
“Comics are a powerful, vitally important form of expression, and everyone needs to have the right to access them along with other kinds of expressive content,” Brownstein said.
“Consider how you would feel if someone were to make the decision that something you had an interest in should be banned. Wouldn’t it feel like a violation to be told you weren’t equipped to make that decision for yourself or for your children?”
According to the CBLDF’s website, censorship of comic books can be traced back to the 1940s, when panels were often viewed as a corrupting influence on young people and were burned even as American GIs returned from a war where they witnessed similar behavior by the Nazis.
In the 1950s, the Senate Judiciary Committee investigated comics’ supposed contribution to juvenile delinquency, which led to the infamous era of self-censoring via the Comics Code Authority. Since then, there have been waves of criminal cases involving comic store clerks and retailers. Most recently, manga has become the increasing target of legal controversy.
“These days we see that materials regarding LGBTQ+ issues are getting challenged most frequently, followed by work addressing sexuality more generally,” Brownstein said.
“And let me be clear, we’re talking about mainstream, often award-winning material.”
He cited as recent examples Raina Telgemeier’s “Drama,” which features a gay character and a same-sex kiss “in the context of a middle school theater production”; Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s “This One Summer,” which describes adolescent talk of sexuality and drug use “with a degree of realness”; and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” a coming-of-age narrative depicting homosexuality “with a degree of reality.”
Just last week, the CBLDF provided support to a library in Maine, which was targeted, ironically, because of its Banned Books Week display. The display “contained LGBTQ content, which local pastors claimed was detrimental to children and promoted a political agenda,” Brownstein said.
“This stuff happens with alarming frequency.”
When the CBLDF learns of such cases, the organization responds by providing “guidance and counseling behind the scenes, often connecting the affected librarian or teacher with resources to help defend the challenge,” Brownstein said.
The group also provides letters of support “privately and publicly,” sometimes in partnership with coalitions such as the Kids’ Right to Read Project.
“We also create a great deal of preventative resources, including discussion guides, case studies, and presentations to help people better understand the value of graphic novels, the importance of intellectual freedom, and how to protect them both,” Brownstein said.
Elementary school librarian Fawn Kemble recently found herself in need of support from the CBLDF after a colleague voiced concerns about the content of “The Dragonslayer,” the fourth volume of the graphic novel series “Bone.”
“It’s a comic book series by Jeff Smith, an adventure tale that is excellent as a bridge book for students who need low-mid level books of high interest,” Kemble said.
An aid at the school objected to a section of the book depicting a character drinking beer, smoking, and gambling in a pub. She felt the content was inappropriate for elementary school readers.
Kemble said she remembers reading “Bone” with her younger brother and considers it “an important piece” of her childhood.
“I tried to explain to (the aid) the context of the stories, how this character is not glorified nor romanticized, and how valuable this series is for the kids to read, but she wouldn’t budge.”
The aid turned the book in to the school’s vice principal and Kemble requested a meeting with the administrator. While preparing her defense of the graphic novel, she reached out to the CBLDF via Twitter.
She said the group promptly responded, asking for the details of the case, “explaining how they had written letters of support for ‘Bone’ in the past and had created resources regarding its use.”
The group offered to provide her with a letter of support or engage in a phone conversation to provide any needed context. Armed with resources from the group’s website, her knowledge of the books, and other research, Kemble brought her case to the vice principal, who heard her out and promised to respond.
“The next day, the book was back in my box,” Kemble said. The vice principal “stopped by later to thank me for our conversation, saying she appreciated my passion and knowledge. She said she respected my thoughts and agreed the book should stay in circulation in our library.
“I was very happy with the way this particular situation worked out. The resources sent to me by the CBLDF, as well as the case study they had posted on their site, helped me go into my meeting calm, confident, and prepared. Situations like these don’t always work out well.”
For librarians and English teachers, dealing with challenges to books that parents, students, or administrators deem inappropriate or offensive is just part of the job.
Veteran high school English teacher Candice Kelsey can rattle off a list of examples, from the time several parents of 6th graders in her class at a West Hollywood school “united in protest” of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” to conservative Christian families who expressed discomfort with “Catcher in the Rye,” to having to cut “Their Eyes Were Watching God” from her curriculum because of sexual content.
“The first novel I ever taught was ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in 1998,” she said. “And I was told after we finished it that I would not be teaching it ever again.”
Kelsey has taught at public, Christian, and Jewish schools and said there are typically no policies or procedures in place for such situations.
“I just was advised by my department chair or, when I was the department chair, I had to negotiate the situation myself.”
During her first five years of teaching, Kelsey said she would fight to keep the challenged books in her curriculum, but she hasn’t been as “proactive” in recent years.
“My goals have morphed more into ensuring little to no conflict with parents and administrators in order to be fully engaged with my students,” she said. “My students come before my book choices.”
Still, Kelsey feels limited in her ability to do her job by such instances of censorship.
“As an English teacher who values freedom of creative expression above all, I feel quite hemmed in at times,” she said.
She deals with this by finding “creative ways to bypass the administrators and teach similar voices and stories that are not in their radar as much.”
Kelsey said she thinks most challenges are sparked by “fear.” Administrators may fear controversy, angry phone calls and meetings, or driving potential donors away. Parents may fear their children growing and maturing, or being exposed to “bad” religious theology.
Kemble said she tries to give the parents or colleagues in these situations the benefit of the doubt.
“Even though I passionately love books and believe the children should have access to many of those which are commonly banned, I try to start by reminding myself that the parent or staff member is just trying to protect their child or student. They mean well, so I always listen to their concerns with respect.”
When it comes to reasons why people attempt to ban literary works, Gomez’s assessment is similar to Kemble’s.
“Books are usually challenged with the best of intentions, often motivated by a desire to protect young readers from ‘inappropriate’ content,” she said. “But these people are ultimately trying to take away other readers’ power to decide what books are right for themselves or their children.”
Brownstein agreed that people who challenge works they find offensive often think they’re protecting their children and others.
“People generally don’t think of their calls to remove something as censorship. But it is. … The best solution to these problems is open-mindedness and dialogue. Consider why someone else may value what you don’t and let them make up their own mind. And if you don’t like it, nobody is making you do so! There’s a universe of great material in the library for everybody!”
Aside from infringing on the First Amendment rights of creators and taking away individual readers’ right to choose what they feel is appropriate for them, banning of books can pose other dangers, especially for young people, according to educators like Kemble and Kelsey.
Kemble said evidence suggests that unnecessarily censoring what children read can discourage them from developing healthy reading habits.
“As a child who always read above my grade level, I appreciated my parents allowing me to read a wide range of books in which I was interested. They rarely said no, and that was only in cases where they knew a book would traumatize me. My voracious appetite for reading was never squashed.
“Then I became an educator and saw first-hand the results of children who had been told what books they could and could not read,” to the point that reading became “merely a chore.”
Kemble said she has researched data concerning the affects of challenges and bans.
“I was surprised to see how severely limiting a child’s choice of reading material correlates to them never reading again once out of school.”
Kemble said she is also concerned that censorship can contribute to a lack of empathy in young readers.
“Long-form fiction, in particular, has been shown to increase empathy in children in a way that direct teaching cannot.”
“Think about which stories are banned, say, in the past decade,” Kelsey agreed.
“Usually, they’re the ones with diverse content that stretches out awareness and consciousness — a vital element in producing empathy. The only people who can ban are those with power, really, so it’s typically the powerless whose stories are deemed inappropriate.”
Kelsey’s thesis is supported by trends in literary censorship.
“Literature that includes or addresses diverse audiences — for example, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, those with different religious views — tends to be attacked more frequently,” Gomez said.
So not only can censorship lead to a lack of empathy for the marginalized, it can also become a form of oppression of those same people groups.
“What bothers me most is this: What oppressive message are we sending our young readers, thinkers, and writers about their own creative self-expression when we condition them to fear someone else’s?,” Kelsey said.
“It’s debilitating on such a soul-deep level, I believe. I aim to teach my students to appreciate the power, beauty, pain, ambiguity, and catharsis of writing and reading and using one’s voice. How can I then say, ‘But not this book?’”
If you’re interested in learning more about Banned Books Week or supporting sponsor organizations, here are some ideas:
Visit the Banned Books Week website here to learn more about the issues, find resources, and discover scheduled activities.
Donate or volunteer for one of the sponsors of Banned Books Week, or sign up for their blogs and email lists. You can find them here.
Learn more about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and find resources here.
Follow @cbldf on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and share the word about what they’re doing.
Artwork Courtesy of the American Library Association.
Photos: Barnes & Noble, Hulu, Amazon.