By Victoria Gill-Gomez
Since their publication, “Kite Runner,” “The Color Purple,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “Song of Solomon” are some of the most notable banned or challenged books in library and school systems nationally. However, during Banned Books Week — which lasts from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3 — they are recognized and honored for their battle against “the norm.”
Banned Books week — according to a webpage created by the Clifton M. Miller Library staff — is an annual event advocating the freedom to read.
During the last week of September, Banned Books Week spotlights the historical and contemporary attempts to censor certain literary works in different educational institutions.
The American Library Association encourages the entire book community to use this week as an opportunity to “voice censorship concerns, celebrate free expression and show their communities the importance of intellectual freedom,” that are often considered unorthodox or unpopular.
“Even if one has never experienced a challenge to a book choice, it is a way to speak for those who can’t and to ensure that the conversation around these works continues,” Erin Counihan, Washington College coordinator and lecturer of secondary education, said.
Miller Library, in collaboration with the WC Education Department, highlighted many previously banned or currently challenged books and authors throughout the week on their social media.
Director of Public Services and Faculty Librarian Amanda Darby chose to feature titles that were both familiar and had “what I considered funny or thought-provoking reasons that challenges had been brought against them in the past.”
An example was “George” by Alex Gino, a middle-grade novel about a child who is transgender. One of the reasons given by a would-be censor for their challenge was that “schools and libraries should not put books in a child’s hand that require discussion,” according to the ALA website.
Darby said she thinks this reasoning is baffling.
“Isn’t this part of the whole point of learning: to form one’s own opinions about material that might be new or controversial to some folks?” Darby said. “We do children a great disservice when we assume that they cannot think critically about new information, and so withhold that information from them. And so I wanted to share that people still do think like this, even in 2020, when we might think that support for the freedom to read is universal.”
For Banned Books Week at WC, Miller Library faculty and Counihan promoted the “Dear Banned Author” campaign, which directly derives from the ALA.
This campaign encourages readers to write and express support for the work of authors whose works are frequently challenged by using either mailed letters or social media tags.
“There are many books that are commonly challenged that have moved me,” Counihan said.
Authors often show these letters and social media posts to libraries or schools that are challenging their books.
The campaign also raises awareness of the fact that book challenges continue to happen even though banning books ceased after the 1982 Supreme Court case of Island Trees School District v. Pico.
According to the case file, the school board attempted to ban several titles that were considered “anti-America, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy.”
These novels included Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” Desmond Morris’s “The Naked Ape,” Piri Thomas’s “Down These Mean Streets,” Langston Hughes’s “Best Short Stories of Negro Writers,” and Beatrice Sparks’s “Go Ask Alice.”
The ruling was not a majority agreement but instead issued a “plurality” opinion. Three different opinions were signed by the justices. This governed that removing books was a matter that school officials could not base on personal opinion but only if the book was inappropriate for the students at the school.
The example of when it is acceptable for a school to remove a book was if Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” was found in an elementary school library.
Challenges to literature, which differ from bans, often take place in public or school libraries where parents do not feel their children should have access to “inappropriate” material, according to Darby.
This is coded language for content that deals with the LGBTQIA+ community, body or sex-positive content, religious diversity, and other topics along these lines. These challenges are not just geared to a parent’s child, but a belief that no one in a community should have access to these taboo ideas, according to Darby.
“This infringes on the free exchange of ideas and the right to read what one chooses, which Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states is a basic human right to which every person, no matter their age, is entitled,” Darby said.
But for libraries that are more frequent targets of challenges, it’s important to have a policy or procedure in place for when a challenge is brought.
In her previous career as a high school teacher, Counihan said she experienced a parent challenge her choice in teaching “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding because of its graphic violence. Even though the school and district approved the book, Counihan agreed to let the student read a different piece in its place.
At the college level there is a lot less parental involvement, Darby said, but it is not absent. The broader issue of censorship is still alive within higher education.
“We’re doing it to ourselves,” Darby said.
This is exemplified for educators when they create their syllabus, debating what texts to teach in a particular course. Similarly, librarians — in academia and elsewhere — need to reflect when collecting materials for their institutions. Providing access to the widest range of materials possible, and not shying away from content that could be divisive, is key, according to Darby.
“Educators [and librarians] should take the time to reflect on why they’re choosing what they’re choosing, and whose voices that may unintentionally be left out of the scholarly conversation,” Darby said. “We all want to help well-rounded young adults who can confidently form their own opinions as they move forward into the world, and speaking out and acting against censorship, both when we see it in our communities and in ourselves, work towards that goal.”
Students are encouraged to seek out as many different points of view, and as many different topics, as possible. According to both Darby and Counihan, college is the perfect time to start really shaping your own worldview.
According to Darby, reading and speaking up for banned and challenged material is critical if we want to live in a society where everyone is free to read what they choose and come to their own conclusions about it.
Darby urges people to read banned literature in order to make their own decisions about it.
Becoming involved with your local library and school district, writing letters to the editor, and checking out challenged books from your library to drive up their circulation statistics are ways to promote censored or challenged literature.
Counihan and Darby hope that spotlighting Banned Books Week will encourage students to return to personal reading with some of their favorite works, as well as consider the harm that censoring these stories and voices can do for the voiceless.
If you are interested in writing to authors or in learning more about Banned Books Week in general, you can visit our virtual guide to the week at https://washcoll.libguides.com/bannedbooks