Free the books!

photo / 8bitjoystick 

What do first periods, an underwear-attired superhero, and “gay” penguins have in common? They’re all in books that have been challenged in schools and libraries. The American Library Association is celebrating the 26th annual Banned Books Week to raise awareness about our freedom to read and to encourage reading in general. Kendra Crispin talked with Deborah Caldwell-Stone and Loriene Roy of the American Library Association to learn more.

In 1982, several publishing organizations got sick of seeing books challenged and decided to band together to support those books “and to also focus on the ongoing problem of the impulse to try to remove books from bookstores and libraries,” according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Deputy Director for the Office of Intellectual Freedom – an officer within the American Library Association. She assists libraries with setting procedures for handling challenges. Her background as an attorney is invaluable for this celebration of the freedom to read.

photo / ellenw 

Books for children and young adults are targeted for removal, Caldwell-Stone said. “We seldom see challenges to books that are written for adults and meant for an adult audience.” The challenges to youth books are based on subject matter, especially involving sexuality and sensitive subjects. A picture book And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who adopt an orphaned egg in a zoo, made the top 10 most challenged list of 2006 – because of homosexuality fears. “It’s a picture book that doesn’t mention sex at all. It’s just the fact that two male penguins got together and raised an egg,” Caldwell-Stone commented, noting how male penguins are naturally nurturing and the ones who hatch the eggs.

Biology lessons, especially about sex, are apparently big no-nos to some adults. Classic books like Where Did I Come From? made the top 100 list for most challenged books from 1990 to 2000. Evidently, parents do not want to see children reading something so “shocking.”

Irrational fears that these books may cause bad behavior trigger strong reactions from some adults, which Caldwell-Stone says cause anxiety about encouraging swear words, rebellious behavior, and hurting the feelings of certain children. That claim is also called “cultural insensitivity,” a challenge raised against books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer. These challenges happen with books taught in high school literature classes.

So the ALA has its hands full in promoting Banned Books Week, but 26 years have provided plenty of ideas and methods. In Chicago, where Caldwell-Stone works, local authors and celebrities will come out to read from their favorite books that have made the lists. People can meet authors, get books signed, and see special displays at book stores and libraries.

Loriene Roy, a professor of the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin and the current president of the ALA, is happily increasing her involvement in Banned Books Week. She promotes annual events like this one. “The students here usually have banned book read-outs,” she explained of the UT-Austin library system. She also described an innovative event in Dayton, Ohio that might be emulated at UT: “They are actually housing a staff member inside of a home-made cage. And that staff member will be answering questions and explaining about Banned Books Week. They’re going to do a web-cam of that staff member.”


Roy’s experience with challenged books has spanned over 20 years and has influenced her graduate library information course. Her students learn methods to assist small libraries, which includes challenges. Somehow, Roy said, the written word assumes greater power than the spoken word.

That could be a factor in the impulse to ban books. Although no one likes to hear a person they hate talk about anything, either. This was summarized the title of a book: Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee. Seems few realize that they can turn away and not have to hear or read anything they dislike. Using the freedom to ignore takes less energy than trying to ban something.

Where might Banned Books Week be expanded? Caldwell-Stone said, “I’d just like to see more events in schools and in libraries. I think it’s an important part of civic education to really consider what our constitution means and the freedoms it promises, and to actually grapple with the problem of what freedom means. And that mean tolerating what other people do.” The problem is when people feel that their values should apply to society. “In public institutions, libraries have to have a broader range of materials and serve a broader range of needs.”

Loriene Roy 

Maybe in the future Austin will take lessons from Chicago’s example and the buses will have ads for Banned Books Week. Although we can be sure none of them will encourage reading Ann Coulter’s Godless while riding. This is Austin, after all.

Roy has additional advice: “I’m sure people would be surprised at which books make this list.” She encourages discussion about the subject. “Imagine not letting someone have access to a book that is cultural phenomenon.” Number one was the entire Harry Potter series. “Read a banned book. Stand on the street with a megaphone and read,” Roy suggested.

Anyone who wants to get involved can check with their local library, and also check the ALA website dedicated to Banned Books Week. “We have an increased on-line presence this year,” Caldwell-Stone added. Facebook, MySpace, and Second Life are particular sources for participating on-line. The ALA, Roy commented, has lectures and discussions about various banned books on Second Life, which holds a pirate theme: “Aye, matey, celebrate your freedom to read.” The avatars in Second Life can also wear Banned Books Week T-shirts (which are also available from the ALA website.) It is new for ALA, but part of the wave of the future.

“We invite everyone to join us September 29 through October 4 to help celebrate the freedom to read,” Caldwell-Stone said.

So check your libraries. If they are not doing something for Banned Books Week, arrange events. Why not help in the celebration? Although how far you take it is up to you. Some books might be dangerous to read anywhere except in private. Toleration, as far as it has come, still has its limits. Which is why we need events like this.