What is Banned Books Week?
Every September libraries across the country create elaborate book displays showcasing books that have been challenged or banned. Banned Books Week started in 1982 and has been practiced every year since in order to highlight the value of free and open access to information. Challenged books include children's picture books, young adult novels, and even general adult fiction. But what are the criteria for challenging books? And do books really still get challenged/banned in 2018?
The criteria for challenging books is simple. Readers can challenge a book they believe contains obscene material not suitable for a particular age group (school libraries) or that they believe should not be openly accessible to readers of any age (public libraries). School and public libraries often have challenge forms available to patrons upon request for materials they have issues with. These same institutions often have a process by which book challenges are reviewed, which can include a committee review by members of the library board, teachers, and librarians.
For children's books, challenges often target books with LGBTQ characters, discussions of gender identity, violence, abuse, etc. In 2017, the most challenged children's picture book was I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. This is an autobiographical picture book based on the life of Jazz Jennings that addresses the author's experience with gender identity and her experience as a young transgender girl. According to the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, despite the book's overall message of acceptance and anti-bullying, censors wanted the book removed from library shelves because it "depicts a transgender child, and because of sex education, language and offensive viewpoints", material believed to be unsuitable for the book's target age group.
Young adult novels play a key role in the reading habits of young people. They often depict characters who experience the same situations and feelings of their teen-aged readers. More and more, movements such as We Need Diverse Books aim to encourage authors of color to depict non-white young adult characters and their experiences. Young people are more likely to enjoy reading if they can see themselves in the characters and stories they're reading. Whether it be identifying with LGBTQ characters in fantasy fiction or characters from poorer neighborhoods in realistic fiction, young people want to know if there are others out there living the same life and experiencing the same feelings that they are. Finding those characters in a book can be the motivation they need to keep reading.
In 2017, the Katy Independent School District (KISD) in Texas removed the book The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas from school library shelves. Thomas's book was nominated for a National Book Award for young people's literature in 2017 and has been made into a movie to be released on October 5, 2018. The book focuses on Starr Carter's experience as a teenager switching between two worlds: the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she lives and the wealthy, mostly white prep school she attends. This careful but uneasy balance is challenged when she is the sole witness to the murder of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Starr is forced to decide whether to speak out about the circumstances of the murder or to hide it from everyone, including herself. The book's removal was prompted by a call to the KISD school board from a concerned parent, prompting KISD Superintendent Dr. Lance Hindt to read the book and decide to remove it from the shelves without a committee review. Dr. Hindt based his decision on the book's "pervasive vulgarity" (School Library Journal). The book has been returned to KISD library shelves as of January 2018, but includes a parental consent form.
Author's often speak out when their books are challenged or removed from shelves, creating a barrier to access for readers. Upon hearing that her book had been removed from school libraries in Katy, Texas, author Angie Thomas emphasized the need to tell the stories of the Garden Heights of the world and used this situation as motivation for continuing to do so.
Another author, John Green, whose young adult novel, Looking for Alaska, is frequently challenged, has also spoken out about the challenges and attempts to ban his book, "If you have a world view that can be undone with a novel, let me submit that the problem is not with the novel".
This year, Banned Books Week runs from September 23-29, but keep in mind that books are challenged by censors year-round.
On that note, here are the most challenged books of 2017:
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (2007)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007)
Drama by Raina Telgemeier (2012)
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
George by Alex Gino (2015)
Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth (2015)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1964)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)
And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole (2005)
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas (2014)
To learn more about this topic, here are some cool sites to visit: