What does the banning or challenging of books tell us about our society?
Banned or challenged books are often books that reflect the diversity of our world. In 2015, of the 10 most challenged books, 9 of them “…contained diverse content.” Many of these books are authored by and/or contain people of color, people who identify as LGBTQIA, people of a different religion, or people with a disability. In other words, people who are minorities or not part of the dominant culture. Readers may become uncomfortable reading about unfamiliar experiences or perspectives. For many, diversity implies negative connotations and therefore are controversial in their eyes despite the fact that many readers may at long last feel a great connection and empowerment when reading these books.
ALA had over 300 challenges in 2016 alone, with an increase of 17% from 2015 which may also be due to a more streamlined reporting system. Nevertheless, half of the top 10 books most challenged in 2016 were removed where they were contested. This was a significant increase from the average according to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. In addition it is estimated that 80-90% of challenges go unreported.
Books that are challenged or banned are often cited for content that is sexually explicit, that includes profanity, offensive political views, or supporting alternative viewpoints. Typically we conjure up examples of parents or an irate citizen complaining about the aforementioned examples. But, sometimes progressive citizens also want to challenge a book’s presence in the library or on the curriculum. As librarians and readers, we need to confront our own fears and bias before responding to these challenges. Whether you’re a reader or not, it is important to be open to new ideas and to read outside our comfort zone whatever that might be.
Words have power. And when access is taken away to those words, we disenfranchise a large segment of our population. With the recent rise of intolerance it is important to remember that authors have the freedom to write and we have the freedom to read. The ALA’s Library Bill of Rights states, “…Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.”
Even books that may seem benign have been challenged over the years. For instance, Making Life Choices: Health Skills and Concepts, Wellness: Stress Management, and the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Family Health have been challenged for mentioning sexually transmitted diseases, failing to mention Christian prayer as an treatment for stress management, and illustrations depicting sexual intercourse.
More recently, the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, received a challenge in 2015 when a parent not only wanted to limit her teenage son’s access to the book but didn’t want other students access and requested it be removed from the county school system all together. She considered the book “pornographic” because of the graphic wording, citing such passages as the infidelity of Lacks’ spouse and how she discovered the lump on her cervix.
But what an opportunity missed for this teenage boy to learn about the health disparities that existed in more than a half century before yet still exist today. What an opportunity missed to learn about another segment of society that many of us prefer to ignore or not even acknowledge. The health disparities in this country are real but reading a dry and somewhat incomprehensible research article does not make for an easy or even an interesting read. Rebecca Skloot’s book connects readers to real people through an engaging story based on research and interviews. Her words have power, having frequently been chosen for One Book reads.
Books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks can bring awareness to those entering medical and research professions, about of the disenfranchised lives of others and the insurmountable obstacles they face. Access to these books can bring about change to how research is handled, how patients are cared for, and how information is conveyed. Facing our own ignorance and encouraging accountability can bring about positive changes.
So, let us celebrate our differences, our common humanity and know that reading has the ability to connect, inspire, and bring change. Join ALA in celebrating the right to read by joining in this year’s 2017 campaign–
“Words Have Power. Read a Banned Book.”