Celebrate Banned Books Week

Banned Books

Did you know that this week is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week? Some people laugh when they hear a reference to banned books. They think, “Well, thank goodness we don’t do that anymore!” Here is the scary thing – communities may not be turning out to burn books in the town square these days, but there is still a surprisingly vocal contingent of people who want to ban books. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, there is currently a proposal in Virginia that would require parents to be notified if required reading in their children’s classes covered “sensitive” material. In Pennsylvania, teachers have been instructed to indicate if books in their classroom libraries contain “violence or sexual content” or “racial, ethnic, or religious material” that might be considered offensive. A local school board in Missouri has just removed Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five from their school libraries in response to a complaint that it contained “vulgar language, violence, and sexual content.” Banning books is still a VERY real thing in our world. The American Library Association provides a list on their website of the books that were most frequently challenged, restricted, removed, or banned in 2013 and 2014.

Last week, Hannah from the blog Things Matter extended an invitation to several book bloggers to choose a book from the ALA list of banned books and share a bit about why it’s an important or worthwhile read. Since I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few weeks ago, that seemed like the perfect choice for me to write about today.

Since its publication in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale has made regular appearances on national lists of banned books. It is typically challenged for the following reasons:

  • Explicit, lurid or sexual content
  • Profanity
  • Defamation of Christians and women

For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s speculative fiction. Atwood’s story assumes that the United States government, in the near future, is overthrown by a totalitarian Christian regime. Everyone is forced to convert to the same denomination of Christianity – those who refuse are executed or deported. Men hold all positions of power exclusively, and all property that women owned before the revolution has reverted to their husband or closest male relative. Women are divided into three classes: Wives, Marthas (domestic servants), and Handmaids (mistresses for the purpose of childbearing). The story is narrated by Offred, although this isn’t really her name. She was married with a child before the revolution, but she has been separated from her family, and she is given the choice between exile and life as a Handmaid. “Offred” literally means “Of Fred,” and Fred is the name of the man she has been assigned to as a Handmaid. She has nothing of her own, no idea if her husband and child are dead or alive, and her every movement is closely watched, both by soldiers and spies for the government. The story is about Offred’s existence within the new world order, and the decision she must make to conform or rebel.

I have to tell you, this book made me uncomfortable. It’s not a happy story. It was strange, frequently disturbing, and hard to follow at times. But it was ENTIRELY worthwhile. The people who argue that it’s anti-Christian are those who have only read the back cover. Atwood is not presenting this futuristic world and saying, “See, this is what life would be like if Christians got their way.” The Handmaid’s Tale is not book that sets out to tear down Christianity – it’s a story about the dangers of fundamentalism in any form. It’s about the ways that good people with good intentions can go horribly wrong when they cling too literally to an ideal. It’s about the ways that we talk ourselves into things, and the ways that we rationalize our behavior to ourselves. Instead of forbidding students to read it, shouldn’t we be encouraging students to read it if they are interested and then talk to someone about it?

Even if The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, celebrate Banned Books Week with us! Pick up a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, or any other book on the ALA’s list and appreciate the fact that you can read whatever you want.

I’ll wrap up today by sharing two of my favorite author responses to banned books. First, here is a video of Benedict Cumberbatch at the 2014 Letters Live event. He is reading a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to Charles McCarthy, the chairman of the Drake School Board in North Dakota, who ordered that all copies of Slaughterhouse Five be burned in the school’s furnace because it contained “obscene language.” Vonnegut responds to accusations that his work is evil by stating that, if his accusers bothered to read his books, they would see that they actually “beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are.” In his letter, Vonnegut is eloquent, severe, and absolutely right.

Second, here is a letter that Pat Conroy wrote in 2007 to the editor of the Charleston Gazette when he learned that a group of parents wanted to prevent a high school teacher in West Virginia from using Prince of Tides and Beach Music in her classroom. Conroy says that of all his books, these two are the ones that he would “place before the altar of God and say, ‘Lord, this is how I found the world you made.’” He makes a powerful argument for supporting English teachers and trusting that they will do no harm when they choose novels for their students to read.

Do you have a favorite banned book?

20 thoughts on “Celebrate Banned Books Week

  1. My children and I love the Harry Potter books. They were quite controversial and I seem to recall that people wanted them banned from schools. I don’t know if they officially count as banned books, but I am going with them because I am all maverick-y. They were a huge part of my two oldest daughters’s childhood. They grew up with those characters. The books and the characters, themes, and storylines are still part of our lives and also the general culture.

    • Paige, Harry Potter absolutely counts! Even though the last book was published seven years ago, Harry Potter is still sitting in the “Top Ten” list of banned books in 2013.

      I’m with you – I adore the Harry Potter books. I have all the beautiful hardcovers with Mary Grandpre’s artwork and all the audiobooks read by Jim Dale. I revisit them on a regular basis!

  2. ARG….I just lost my comment!!!!

    Thank you for recognizing Banned Book Week! My kids are lucky to live in a community that embraces books on the list……so many especially in Texas are not so fortunate.

    I think J.K. Rowling must be so proud to be #1 on the list!

    We are reading Slaughter House Five and Welcome to the Monkey House this week. Vonnegut is a genius! Kid 3 says he’s going to read all 100 on the 2000 to 2009 list…..man I love that boy:)

    I agree with everything said about The Handmaid’s Tale. Important book. Terrifying, but important. I read it when it first came out and it scared me……could this be the future……possibly…..my girlfriends and I talked about that book for weeks.

  3. I applaud your celebration of banned books week! I agree that there are quite a few books on that list that seem utterly ridiculous. With that being said, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t necessarily disagree with schools and teachers being more transparent about the books they require students to read. As a parent of children trying to teach them good values, I appreciate being more fully informed of what type of content my kids are reading in school. I don’t see anything wrong with that. What we always have to be cautious with however, is to not perpetuate that mob mentality. Sometimes when issues such as this come up, people tend to go extreme on either end. My favorite banned book: Thirteen Reasons Why. I think every teen should read this book because it shows how cruelty and callousness can drive people to extreme actions.

    • Thanks, Alice! And I don’t think you’re going out on a limb at all with what you’ve said. There is a BIG difference between banning books (i.e. forbidding or destroying them) and screening books for age-appropriate reasons. It does get a little tricky when you start trying to answer the question, “But who gets to decide what’s age appropriate for a reader?” I know my mom asked me to wait on reading certain books until I was older. I never felt like she was trying to rob me of a reading experience – she was just making sure I would be ready for the books when I read them.

      I’ve not read “Thirteen Reasons Why” – who is the author?

      • I like both yours and Alice’s replies. Selecting age appropriate books are important for children. However, all children are different and may be able to handle information at different ages. I taught 5th grade for 23 years, and will say that teachers definitely have to be careful with books they select in elementary. It used to be that Newbery books could be counted as safe for elementary, but that changed about 10-12 years ago (maybe even longer – because I recall that My Brother Sam is Dead contains some ‘language’ as well as violent situations). I used it for a language arts tie in to the Revolutionary War with one of my high groups, and their eyebrows raised. I just explained that the author was trying to make the characters sound realistic, but that we wouldn’t say those words out loud.

        I made the mistake of buying several paperbacks for another group to be part of a unit study in another area without reading the book first. This was by an author I trusted from previous experience. Thank goodness I read the book before using it, because I found it to present graphic violence – such that I was not comfortable for 10-11 year olds to read. So, I was out some money. Many times students would bring me books from the library to show curse words that they were shocked at. Again, I explained that some authors feel they have to use those words to be realistic, but have to admit I hated to see that language for elementary kids. I have found it is best to not appear shocked, for then the issue will become larger.

        Haven’t looked at the list, but am sure I would be surprised at some books on there. I have a friend who taught HS English, and parents complained about assigning Huckleberry Finn. She told them to select another book for her approval. So this can be an extremely touchy situation.

      • Thirteen Reasons Why is written by Jay Asher. And thank you for your response! I agree that different kids are ready for different books at different stages. I feel for teachers trying to select books that will please everyone!

      • No I haven’t but it sounds like I should add some more of hers to my ‘to read’ list. I read it whilst having a dystopian/ science fiction binge, so read ‘Time Machine’ and ‘Brave New World’ too, both of which I would recommend 🙂

  4. Hi 🙂 Just letting you know I stopped by. I’m visiting everyone who shared a post for Hannah’s blog party and tweeting/pinning their posts. The Handmaid’s Tale is a great choice to write about 🙂 It’s a profoundly disturbing book. I can’t pick a favorite banned book because there are so many to choose from.

    • Hi Gene’O – thanks for stopping by! It’s hard to come up with a favorite on the “Banned Books” list, but I had just finished reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” so it was fresh in my mind.

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