Banned Books Week Is Here, And Here Is Why It’s So Important (Do It for the Kids)

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“This is the best I’ve felt about the state of publishing in a long time,” Barbara Jones, Director of ALA, said to the crowd as David Horowitz wrapped up the last discussion question at the final installment in YPG’s censorship panel series. Last week’s panel on censorship in children’s books and young adult literature was a Banned Books Week Geek’s dream. Moderated by David Horowitz, the Executive Director of Media Coalition, the panel was a star-studded affair… at least as far as the world of censorship and banned books goes.

The panelists ranged from authors to employees at the Office of Intellectual Freedom, featuring Robie Harris, author of It’s Perfectly Normal and Who’s in my Family?, along with countless other titles; Charles Brownstein, Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Kirstin Pekoll, Assistant Director at the Office of Intellectual Freedom; and David Gale, Vice President and Editorial Director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and editor of And Tango Makes Three.  With a crowd so entrenched in censorship issues and privy to all the details of Banned Books Week, the conversation took off immediately.

Surprisingly, most of the YPG members attending the panel weren’t even born when Banned Books Week was in its beginning stages. Launched on April 1, 1982 by Judith Krug, Banned Books Week has a storied history of both ruffling feathers and bringing much needed light to the hundreds of challenges against books which are filed in the United States every year. According to the ALA, more than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982, and in this past year there were over 300 challenges. Even though these numbers may seem large they are only the reported challenges, a fraction of the challenges that likely go unreported every year. Most of these challenges involve books that fall into the Children’s and Young Adult categories. This polarization, Pekoll explained, is the reason that the 2015 Banned Books Week focus is on Young Adult Literature.

Another unfortunate, but not surprising, trend that all of the panelists touched on is the fact that most of the top banned books, year in and year out, are books that feature diverse characters. Characters of color, characters who identify as gay or bisexual, even characters from different parts of the world, are all more likely to come under criticism than a white, straight protagonist. This is especially true in schools that are majority white. But when you hear the books that hit the “Top Ten Banned Books List” for 2014, many of which hit the list every year, it’s shocking how lauded and even “mainstream” these books seem to an audience of publishing professionals. Last year the top ten most banned books were:

  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  3. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  5. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
  6. Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  9. A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard
  10. Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Three of the books listed above are graphic novels, which, Charles Brownstein verified, isn’t surprising. In the past ten years, graphic novels have become more and more a part of our daily lives. They aren’t just superhero series. Now, many of these books have been recognized for what they are, literature and meaningful storytelling. However, the fact that graphic novels are told in panels of pictures rather than sentences makes it much easier for a passerby to call out a book as explicit or inappropriate based on a single panel, without taking the time to assess the book for its larger concept. Take Saga or Persepolis, for instance. Saga is often banned for being sexually explicit, despite the fact that the sexually explicit panels are not telling of the majority of the story. In many schools, Persepolis is banned for the panels depicting the torture that was so prevalent in the Islamic Revolution of the 1980s. Even though this kind of torture may be mentioned in textbooks, parents and teachers are often reluctant to have conversations about the darker side of history with their children and students. Graphic novels make these conversations more difficult to avoid, especially when visual depictions of things like torture makes these real issues so vivid.

Brownstein noted that graphic novels, especially those geared towards young adults, are a part of a cultural shift. The problem is parental control, and when that control stops now as opposed to where it stopped a decade ago. There isn’t a hard and fast rule on how much parents should regulate their children’s consumption, but with each generation it becomes more difficult to shield children from information that is readily available out in the world. Brownstein’s observations led into a discussion of Robie Harris’ extreme familiarity with banned books.

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Harris has written over twenty books for children of all ages. Her books deal with what she calls “the real and powerful feelings children have and the ways in which they express those feelings.” Part of that includes learning about their bodies, the birds and the bees, that it’s okay to cry, and that having two mommies is a perfectly acceptable family dynamic. Needless to say, the things Harris writes and the images that accompany her books are challenged very frequently. Yet even after so many years she feels horrible when her books are banned because of the stress that it puts on librarians who may feel the need to defend these books, even if it means putting their jobs on the line. But the bottom line, and the reason that Harris has continued writing for decades, is that she is committed to publishing what she believes in—and publishing books that help children understand themselves and their surroundings is exactly what she believes in.

Both Pekoll and David Gale chimed in on this note, saying that librarians and authors are often extremely dedicated to getting stories that deserve telling out into the world. A perfect example of this persistence is And Tango Makes Three, a frequently banned book that is on the verge of celebrating its 10th anniversary. Unlike Harris, the authors of Tango are fine with their banned book status. Gale noted that sometimes banning a book is the precursor for a sales spike, or at least more media attention. And media attention gives publishers and authors the chance to better educate their audience on a wider level.

Sometimes the “bad press” from book challenges even creates an entire phenomenon around a book. When Courtney Summers’ book, Some Girls Are, was banned for a scene involving oral sex, Summers, her fans, and her publisher made it a point to send hundreds of books to the libraries in Charleston, South Carolina, where the challenge occurred.

Unfortunately there is a dark side to the expanded press coverage of banned books. Though it can be good for business, often children and young adults still get the impression that their inclination towards banned books makes them “weird”—especially if their entire community rallies behind the book’s banning. Librarians play big role in turning this “shaming” of banned book readers around. By working with Pekoll and the Office for Intellectual Freedom, librarians are given the resources they need to stand behind challenged books, which many of them do. However, in some cases a librarian’s job may be at risk if they choose to stand up for a challenged book, and Pekoll and her team are there to stand behind librarian in those situations as well, even if it means taking a book off of the shelf. “Our loyalty is to librarians first and intellectual freedom second,” Pekoll explained, pointing out that librarians are too precious of a resource to lose and sometimes one librarian is unable to stand up to an entire community.

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In the end, what the anti-censorship and Banned Books Week campaign needs most is more younger voices who are keyed into this generation’s needs and culture speaking up for books and demanding that they be readily available to anyone who wants to read them. Publishers can help by making the descriptions of their books clear, instead of burying any potentially inflammatory plot points in deliberately vague copy. And most importantly, anyone can participate in the many Banned Books Week celebrations, panels, and lectures around the country. To learn more about ways you can participate, visit the Banned Books Week website and the PEN.org.

In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” Which is why we must keep reading and keep advocating for every book to have the right to a shelf life.

This article was contributed by YPG committee member Emily Brock (@EmilyNBrock). To learn more, visit our planning committee page here.

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