Next week is Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and emphasizing the importance of free, open access to information. One of my favorite quotes about libraries is “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone” (Jo Godwin). I grew up in a household where my mother drew a Sharpie over words like “damn” and “hell,” would not allow us to watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid (because immodesty), and ripped out the “Shivers” chapter from Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel for being too scary and disturbing. Of course, on the other hand, we read the Bible every day (which appears on the top ten list of most frequently challenged books in 2015) and were well acquainted with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which I now find so much more disturbing than the Disney remake (did you know the witch cuts out the mermaid’s tongue? With a knife? And this part of the whole becoming-a-human contract still haunts me: “at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives…”). Anyway, I ended up becoming obsessed for a while with books and movies that were considered unorthodox and inappropriate and now the item in our library’s collection that I am personally most offended by is a tie between Jurassic World and Frozen because THAT IS NOT HOW ANIMALS BEHAVE and WHY DID THE CHARACTER OF HANS DO A COMPLETE 180 SO LATE IN THE STORY?
Sorry, sidetrack. Back to censorship! The mission of the library is to bring people and information together, which would not be possible without the freedom to access and express information and ideas that not everyone agrees with or finds appropriate. From the American Library Association’s website, “By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles lists of challenged books as reported in the media and submitted by librarians and teachers across the country. Find out which challenged books made the 2015 list, which was released as part of the 2016 State of America’s Library Report.
“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. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.
“The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.”
In celebration of Banned Books Week, some of our staff shared their thoughts on banned books they read and found inspiring or meaningful. Share your own thoughts on censorship, a banned book you read, or how you will be celebrating Banned Books Week this year in the comments!
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: It’s hard to overlook the irony of someone trying to ban a book that’s about books being illegal. I first read it as a junior in high school, smack in the middle of my angsty adolescent years. It introduced me to the dystopian genre, but more importantly it gave me Clarisse, a character who determinedly (and dreamily!) sticks to her idea of how life should be lived, despite the possibility of violent repercussions. Her gentle and curious non-conformist streak continues to inspire me.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: When I was in high school (back in the Cretaceous), my AP English teacher informed us one day that there were certain books she would love to teach but didn’t quite dare because of parental disapproval: Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, and Slaughterhouse-Five. I immediately went and read the first two, but for some reason I didn’t get around to the last one, and the years rolled by, and I only read Slaughterhouse-Five a couple of years ago. I found it both intensely tragic and comical at the same time. I don’t know that it’s a “favorite” book because it was almost painful to read, but it’s an important book. I’m not sure I would have perceived it the same way at age 17, but I wish we’d been give the chance to try. In my opinion, if literature has any moral purpose (which is arguable anyway), it is that it enables us to share experiences outside our own limited perspectives.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding: 9th-grade English class can either be the best or worst of times, depending on the teacher and their enthusiasm for the subject. Mine was the best of times and it was in Mr. Doyle’s class that I first read Lord of the Flies. In my sheltered existence, I thought that everyone was nice and cared about everyone else and no one would ever be intentionally unkind. I think this was the first book that really introduced me to the concept that life was not fair, people are cruel and out for their own gain, and that someone always has to be at the bottom of the pecking order. At times I was disgusted and horrified by what I read, but I am grateful that I was taught these lessons from the pages of a book and not a bully.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: While compiling a Guys Read booklist, I decided to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As a parent, I was shocked by some of the frank remembrances that the author shared. As a reader, I was grateful for the window on a life and its struggles that are so far removed from my own. And as a librarian, I was grateful for the poignant and engaging story that helps young adults see that someone who may not be like them can possibly share some of the same challenges. Books provide an opportunity to explore new ideas and generate new thoughts. Books let us go to places we have never imagined and experience them. Whether you like them or whether you don’t, that is what books are best at.