By Emma Louise Backe
“Some books leave us free and some books make us free.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Banned Books Week is upon us again, now on its 30th anniversary. This week, September 21-27, the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, the American Library Association, the Freedom to Read Foundation, PEN American Center, and countless other literary organizations, libraries, schools, journalists, publications, book clubs and local institutions band together to raise awareness about books that have been banned, blacklisted and removed from schools and libraries across the country. According to the website, “Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. There were 307 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2013, and many more go unreported” (2014). As a life long book geek, I cherish my freedom to read and have often taken for granted the level of access I have to books across genres, from authors around the world. Banned Books Week is an opportunity to raise awareness about the freedom to read and the importance of sharing ideas and stories, even if those narratives make you uncomfortable.
Many of the books that are commonly banned deal with controversial issues, and are subsequently deemed unsuitable, insulting or inflammatory to readers. Readers may be surprised to learn that some of the most commonly banned books are the very works of literature that have shaped American culture and catalyzed positive social, economic, and political change. Some commonly banned books include Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and The Witches by Roald Dahl, to name a few. These books have been deemed “deviant,” “troubling,” “filthy,” “anti-Christian,” “blasphemous” and “troubling.” In 1996, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was labeled “racially offensive” and subsequently banned from several schools, a decision that seemed to completely overlook the critique of racism, classism and discrimination Twain weaves throughout the narrative.
This year, Banned Books week is also celebrating graphic novels and comic books. Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee, stated, “This year we spotlight graphic novels because, despite their serious literary merit and popularity as a genre, they are often subject to censorship” (Perez 2014). Commonly banned graphic novels include Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, and Bone by Jeff Smith. As critical readers and comic book geeks, this week is especially important. Being exposed to alternative cultural and life worlds at a young age—ones that challenge your notions of normalcy and force you to think about things from a wholly different perspective—shape your social outlook, sense of morality and notions of humanity, perspectives that follow you into your adult life. Many of the books that are commonly banned do important cognitive and cultural work. This week is a prescient time to reflect on the books that are important to you, and consider how these books have shaped who you are or how you orient yourself as a person. It’s also an opportunity to support your local library or bookstore, cultural institutions that are also struggling to remain relevant in the digital age. The Banned Books Week website provides press kit materials and a schedule of events occurring throughout the week.
Let’s start a conversation. What are your favorite banned books and why do you think they’re important to read?
Alexie, Sherman (2009). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group USA.
Atwood, Margaret (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books.
Banned Books Week (2014). http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about
“Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read” (2014). ALA. http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek
Dahl, Melissa (2014). “Can Harry Potter Teach Kids Empathy?” NY Mag. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/07/can-harry-potter-teach-kids-empathy.html
Dahl, Roald (1983). The Witches. England: Jonathan Cape.
Gaiman, Neil (1989-1996). The Sandman. New York: DC Comics.
Heller, Chris (2014). “Why Libraries Matter.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/371084/why-libraries-matter/
Huxley, Aldous (1932). Brave New World. New York: Harper Collins.
Lee, Harper (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Lowry, Lois (1993). The Giver. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Moore, Alan (1986). Watchmen. New York: DC Comics.
Perez, Nanette (2014). “Banned Books Week 2014 Celebrates Graphic Novels.” Banned Books Week. http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/node/2076
Pullman, Philip (1995). The Golden Compass. New York: Borzoi Books, Alfred Knopf.
Rowling, J.K. (1997-2007). Harry Potter. New York: Scholastic Inc.
Smith, Jeff (1991-2004). Bone. Columbus, Ohio: Cartoon Books.
Tiki-Toki (2014). “Banned Books Week: Celebrating 30 Years of Liberating Literature.” http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/51787/Banned-Books-Week-Celebrating-30-Years-of-Liberating-Literature/#vars!date=1994-12-27_12:43:45!
Twain, Mark (1884). Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Dover Publications Inc.
Vonnegut, Kurt (1969). Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing.