Celebrating Banned Books Week

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J. Douglas Archer
Chair, American Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee

Celebrate book banning? No way! Why would you do that? The answer, of course, is that Banned Books Week celebrates the continued availability of books that some folks tried to ban, not their attempts to ban them. Banned Books Week celebrates books and the people and institutions that defend your right to read them. For over twenty-seven years Banned Books Week has celebrated the freedom of Americans to write, publish, sell, buy, borrow, and read. It does this by publicizing attempts to have books removed from America's libraries -- whether those attempts where successful or not.

Banned Books Week is an annual event sponsored by a coalition of organizations representing America's writers, publishers, booksellers and libraries – those segments of our society most directly committed to supporting the unimpeded creation and distribution of information.  This year’s participants are the American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, and National Association of College Stores.  In addition, Banned Books Week is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.
This year's data collected by the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 420 formal attempts to have books removed from America's school, public and academic libraries.  Since only a portion of challenges are report (some estimate only 20 to 25 percent), it’s fairly obvious that the impulse to censor is alive and well in America.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the “10 Most Challenged Books of 2007” were:

1. “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
2. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
3. “Olive’s Ocean,” by Kevin Henkes
4. “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman
5. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain
6. “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker
7. "TTYL,” by Lauren Myracle
8. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou
9. “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris
10. "The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky

Among the other titles challenged in 2007 as reported in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom were Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and five of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter titles.  The reasons for these challenges varied widely.  While sex, language, violence and inappropriateness for age are often cited, politics, religion and any other theme about which people care can motivate a challenge.  Would be censors are often well intended -- sincerely concerned about the welfare of their fellow citizens.  But good intentions do not give them the right to determine what you or I can buy, borrow or read – or to decide for other parents what their children may read.

In spite of the numerous challenges documented every year, some folks continue to argue that Banned Books Week vastly overstates the problem.  They note that most of those reported challenges failed.   Therefore, they argue, the frequency of actual censorship is vastly overblown, that the Banned Books Week label is misleading and that the sponsors of Banned books Week are being fundamentally dishonest.
This line of argument brings to mind the classic example of chutzpah, Yiddish for gall, nerve or sheer effrontery.   You probably know the story.   A man is convicted of killing his parents.  At sentencing he asks the judge for mercy because he's an orphan.  Chutzpah!  It's more than a bit disingenuous for folks to criticize defenders of the freedom to read for being so successful so often.  In actuality, they are saying that because censors were so unsuccessful in their attempts, they shouldn’t be criticized for trying.  Chutzpah!  They ignore if not explicitly denigrate the time, effort and money expended by thousands of American citizens to exercise their fundamental constitutional right to choose for themselves and their children what they will read or will not read. 

Of course, to be a little more accurate Banned Books Week could be called “Challenged and Banned Books Week.”  But that lacks conciseness and zip.  After all, it’s only a label and all labels oversimplify.  I suppose to be absolutely accurate we could even rename Banned Books Week as "Challenged Books, Banned Books, and Books that Would Have Been Banned if the Would Be Censors Had Had Their Way Week."  Nah!  “Banned Books Week” works.