United by Books

Banned Books Week is scheduled for September 26 - October 2, 2021. Although various classrooms and libraries around the country typically participate in this annual event, I encourage everyone to celebrate the freedom to read by selecting to read one of the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2020. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether a book on the list is redeemable or objectionable. This year’s theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”

Celebrating the freedom to read, Banned Books Week (BBW) was launched in 1982 by the American Library Association (ALA) in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.  The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom not only compiles lists of challenged books as reported in the media and submitted by librarians and teachers across the country but publishes those lists. BBW serves to spotlight these current as well as historical attempts to censor books as well as to convey awareness about the dangers in censorship. The week typically brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas.

According to the ALA, “Banned Books Week emphasizes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.”

From a similar stance, former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas stated: "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us." 

To celebrate the benefits of free and open access to information, readers might also consider why books get challenged.  Sometimes books are challenged with the best intentions, frequently to protect children from difficult ideas and information.  But who gets to define difficult? And when books are labelled “inappropriate” or “unsuited to age group” because of their profanity, violence, sexual explicitness, and issues such as suicide or drug use, who is doing the labelling and what definitions are guiding them?  Who gets to narrow down and decide what is appropriate for another reader?

To approach difficult topics, teachers will often select a book to initiate discussion. For nearly 30 years as he worked with young adults, Don Gallo called such titles bold books.  According to Gallo, these are the best books because they deal in the gray areas of life.  Although these books are often targeted as controversial, Gallo says, “Good books have always caused people to think, and since few of us think alike, controversy is guaranteed.” Bold books provide the primer for living life in its good, bad, and ugly reality.  “And there’s no better place to explore the larger, diverse, often scary world than from the safe distance a book provides.”

Like Gallo, most parents would much rather that their children explore drug use or the consequences of sexual promiscuity through a book than through actual personal experience.  Reading texts that feature tough topics not only imparts information but also assists readers in forming opinions after encountering multiple perspectives, especially about controversial political viewpoints.  Using a text as a tool for tough talk also affords those engaged in discussion some distance from the topic, which can be filtered through a character’s reaction or opinion.  This attribution provides a level of safety for adolescents who are still discovering their own identities and forming individual philosophies.

Furthermore, discussing contentious topics is a method for teaching civil discourse and making a difference in the world. Readers who experience opportunities to read controversial literature and to critically examine literature like that on the list of Frequently Challenged Books develop civic awareness, critical thinking skills, and argument literacy.  With these analysis, argument, and public conversation skills, we give students access to forms of intellectual capital that have power in both the corporate and the academic worlds.  These skills also provide access for those wishing to enter political and social conversations as they vie for resources or rally to promote positive change.  After all, a thinking, democratic populace should possess the skills necessary for interrogating social and political practices and policies. 

For the third year in a row, the most challenged book in 2020, was George by Alex Gino.  Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting the values of a community, this book tells the story of Melissa, a ten-year-old transgender girl struggling for acceptance among her friends and family. Although Melissa knows she’s a girl, the world sees her as a boy named George. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award and the ALA Stonewall Award, Gino’s book addresses transgender transformations and mentions urinals and underwear covered in tiny red hearts.

Such topics may create dissonance for some readers, but tucked into the pages of George are valuable lessons about bullying and friendship. Besides its relatable message about the search for belonging, Gino’s book reflects the diversity and complexity of being alive. With such a book, readers going through similarly challenging experiences may take comfort in knowing that they are not alone.  For people whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex, the book may impart understanding and inspire empathy. 

While some ideas are certainly better than others and some books do indeed share potentially dangerous ideas, we will individually need to determine where those boundaries exist for us. Once we have read a book and perhaps some reviews to determine the author’s intent and purpose, we will have concrete evidence to make an informed decision about whether a book is objectionable or whether we would recommend it to anyone else.  

To explore the merits or demerits of any book or to find especially valuable passages where life lessons or redeemable qualities occur, individuals have to read the book and form a decision themselves. 

Those interested can find a complete list of challenged books on the ALA website (www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks). And with the fall equinox arriving on September 22 and likely bringing sweater weather, it’s a good time to curl up with a book.

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