In Good Company: Banned Books Week

By Christine Cupaiuolo — September 28, 2006

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Banned Books Week. Considering that the U.S. is all about preaching freedom these days, you’d think public libraries and schools would be safe havens for all reading material. Pity it’s not the case.

The American Library Association was notified of 405 book challenges in 2005. Book challenges are defined by the ALA as “a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” For each reported incident, four or five remain unreported, according to Judith F. Krug, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

So what’s the number one reason for wanting a book removed? Sexually explicit material. In fact, between 1990 and 2000, there were 1,607 challenges to “sexually explicit” material, and another 515 to material with a homosexual theme or “promoting homosexuality.”

The 10 most frequently challenged books of 2005 include two books about sex education: “It’s Perfectly Normal” (cited for homosexuality, nudity, sex education, religious viewpoint, abortion and being unsuited to age group) and “It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families” by Robie H. Harris (cited for sex education and sexual content).

They’re in good company. Sherry Steadman, library associate at West Virginia University, told the Daily Athenaeum that the last book challenge in West Virginia’s Monongalia County was in 1977 — for “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

“It was challenged because someone thought it was pornographic, encouraged homosexuality and was filthy,” Steadman said.

Almost 30 years later, OBOS remains controversial — and essential. Last year, the conservative Intercollegiate Review included “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in its list, The 50 Worst Books of the Century (.pdf). The reason for its inclusion: “Our Bodies, Ourselves, or, Our Bodies, Our Liberal Selves. A textbook example of the modern impulse to elevate the body and its urges, libidinal and otherwise, above soul and spirit.”

At the other end of the we-value-your-opinion spectrum, the editorial committee and advisory board of the Journal of Health Services Research and Policy recently ranked OBOS as one of the books that has had the greatest influence on the development of health services and health care policy.

Young adult novels have long been a target of book challenges. Sonya Sones, whose novel “What My Mother Doesn’t Know” made the 2005 list for sexual content and unsuitability for the age group, told the Buffalo News, “There is no sexual content in ‘What My Mother Doesn’t Know’ except for kissing. More often than not, the people who challenge books don’t actually read them. They just read the ‘juicy parts.’ I guess ‘What My Mother Doesn’t Know’ seems too sexual to some people because of Sophie’s passionate nature, and the way she describes these kisses.”

The Buffalo News also spoke with author Laurie Halse Anderson, whose book “Speak” often makes the list. One of my favorite YA novels, “Speak” explores the often neglected perspective of an adolescent girl who is raped by a fellow student. “I completely respect a parent’s involvement in their child’s education – that is one of the most important responsibilities of being a parent,” said Anderson. “I am frustrated, however, by parents who feel they have the right to decide for all the children in a school or library what books will be read. That is not the way it works in a democracy.”

This year Google put together a banned books section featuring 42 classics that were challenged this year or in previous years. You’ll find excerpts and links to articles about each book.

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