As many of you know it’s Banned Books Week, a week-long event celebrating our great nation’s freedom to publish and read and a reminder of the perils of constraining the free exchange of thought. The website Banned Books Week even has an interactive map of the books that have been challenged and banned in the last couple of years.
Banned Books Week has not been without controversy as the Wall Street Journal published a chiding editorial about the celebration, noting that very few books have actually been banned in the last couple of years, which in the opinion of the editorial shows that the ALA has far more power over what kids read than the parents who (almost unanimously unsuccessfully) challenge books.
While I don’t particularly agree with much of the editorial, I do think it raises some interesting points for discussion.
Censorship and book-banning was certainly an important issue pre-Internet, when libraries and bookstores (if you were lucky enough to have both) were the only places where books could really be acquired. But these days the Internet has made any book readily available. Is the issue of censorship as pressing as it used to be, when the banning of HUCK FINN at a library meant a kid really couldn’t read it? Is the editorial correct that if censorship means actually suppressing a book’s availability, it is moot in the Internet age?
And perhaps more importantly, where is the line between parental and public discretion vs. censorship? Should public libraries stock everything and let patrons decide what is inappropriate? What about books that, say, incite prejudice or that the majority of a community feels is inappropriate for children?
Who should decide?
Lots of questions!
Amy Cochran says
I am reminded of my school years. Through out middle school we were expected to read a number of books as part of the literary curriculum. As you may have guessed this exact debate became a hot topic within the school district. I only remember three books on that entire list: The Lottery Rose by Irene Hunt, I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. The school district approved all of the works pending parental discretion. In a bold move the school board announced that it was the responsibility of the school district to educate those children under their tutelage. However, it was the moral responsibility of the parent to determine if the content was appropriate for their child.
I agree, it is the responsibility of the parent to decide what is or is not appropriate for their child. External censorship is appalling and can easily be taken too far. What would people think of external censorship if the Bible were to be the subject of a ban because some thought it contained inappropriate material for young readers? Just a question.
Gal. Emp. Palpatine, D.L.S., Esq. says
I think there's an important difference between a public library and a school library. I think there's an important difference between the childrens' shelf and the adults' shelf. I think there's an important difference between "banning" (or "censoring") and simply "removing". "Banning," incidentally, is not on the table here in any serious sense of the word, which makes "Banned Books Week" a bit of a sensationalistic misnomer — something that looks good on cable news but doesn't serve civil conversation one bit.
I think this conversation would shed a lot more light and a lot less smoke on the matter if these distinctions were borne more closely in mind.
For myself, I do think school librarians — and their supervisors — should be empowered to remove books from the shelves (or move them to a restricted section) if parents find the material inappropriate and the school agrees. There's nothing wrong with acting as a community, applying community values, to protect children. If that means one community removes Jack Chick and another removes And Tango Makes Three from school shelves — and it is still available at other venues — that seems — to me — like the fulfillment a free society, not a betrayal of it.
Censorship for book is a concept that I do not understand. I am German, and after our experiences with burning books during the Third Reich there would be an outrage if our government tried to ban books.
I don't see it as a problem either. Ususally, books no one is interested in will not survive long on the shelves. All others are important – and if a kid is grown up enough to read something more challenging we should be proud of them and not hinder them. The important bit is that as a parent you need to talk with your children about what they read. You can't leave them alone when they face rape, racism, drug abuse etc. in the stories. You need to help them come to their own conclusions.
Understanding and tolerance are what parents (and gouvernments) should aim for.
Vacuum Queen says
I just would like a "heads up" as to content before I buy a book or check it out for my oldest kid. And when he checks his own stuff out, I appreciate that the library has a "13 and older" rule on some books. That at least makes me stop in my tracks and read the back or look up info or read a random page inside. Most likely he can read it, I just want the heads up that there may be a topical issue to discuss. So, I'm more about discretion vs censorship.
The internet sure helps my cause too…I can read a review in no time. Although, my son has 3 books going on right now for different areas of school, so it's obvious that keeping up with them is tough. Some of it doesn't come home until midbook also. You just can't be as on top of it as you want to be as a parent, no matter how hard you try, so I appreciate a wee bit of help to the parents' direction. 🙂
Debra Moolenaar says
If, as some statistics suggest, the average age of first sexual intercourse is 12 years AND elementary school kids are drug pushers AND they all watch the evening news, the what is it that we really think we are 'hiding' from them when we censor books?
More to that matter, historically censorship was just as big an issue for books aimed at adults as it was for kids (remember DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover was self-published in Italy to avoid US and UK censorship law).
Might it not be that censorship of all types has always had more to do with political agendas than with a genuine concern for anyone's welfare?
Most censorship splits into two targets; 1.Adults and/or 2. Children.
Anyone that cannot see both the dangers and the stupidy of censorship targeted at adults has been brainwashed!
The main argument translates as "most adults are actually children and we must protect them from themselves".
Those demanding such censorship, however, are actually stating "My way, my ideas are what count, everyone else must be forced to comply".
That they dress it up in 'feel good' terms is neither here nor there.
This is a much tougher debate. Anyone that has tried to explain a complex concept to a child and then listened to the way they interpret it based on their limited knowledge and experience, becomes well aware of the difficulty of such communication.
Many topics have a pre-requisite of experience and knowledge before they can sensibly be discussed.
It is also true that a depressingly large majority of child rearers have little to no comprehension of how to be a nurturing parent. This, and not the biologial age of the child, determines the danger of exposing a child to certain things.
I am, therefore, neutral on legal forms of censorship to 'protect children'.
With my children, I prefer that they are exposed to sex, violence, and many forms of bigotry and prejudice in my company. I have nurtured their trust, I know their capabilities of comprehension, and I can counter the schoolyard myths and stupidities.
I also know that censorship is now literally unenforceable. Both I and the children of inadequate parents can bypass it easily.
I'd merely suggest that putting effort into educating parents would be a far more worthwhile approach compared to attempting such censorship. Trouble is, that is neither the vote nor the feelgood complacency/lp service winner – is it.
I don't think that a book can "incite prejudice". Prejudice is something learned/absorbed from the environment in which one grows; or possibly an unreasonable "conclusion" that one reaches after an experience. A child raised to not see differences between people as significant is not going to become a racist at age 13 because they read Huck Finn…
*insert frustrated flailing here* Some of these bans are completely absurd. The Supernaturalist, by Eoin Colfer, has nothing to do with occult (that I can derive, it was one of my favorites in middle school). Parents look at the covers and titles and assume things, or assume based on rumors, which we all know are blown out of proportion as they get passed around.
I find it ironic and depressing that we now live in a community where parents'll raise hellfire about what books their children read and demand the libraries and schools to ban them, but these same parents will let their children watch R-rated films. Essentially, if they're complaining about one thing, they OUGHT to be complaining about the other. It's almost as though because books are the written word, they're more dangerous.
Parents should take the interest and responsibility of censoring what their children read themselves. It's not the governments job to do that. It has better things to do.
Yeah. That's a very condensed summary of my feelings on the topic. Ranting in full is what my blog is for. 😛
My parents never supervised what books I read, and by the time I was twelve, I'd read plenty of "adult books" that had explicit violence and sexual content. Since my parents were the kind of people who told me to cover my eyes when a makeout scene came on the TV, I'm pretty sure they would have been horrified if they had actually bothered to look at what I was reading (though strangely, violence was A-Okay, but sex was bad and I had to cover my eyes). Honestly, I don't think the exposure has harmed me in any way. Children have a strong BS meter, and books are–for the most part–a lot more honest about life than TV or parents will ever be. Did I think the sex and violence was interesting? Hell yes, but it didn't make me run to the romance/erotica shelves. All it did was give me a ton of information, so I could learn how to put that information in context.
When you limit the kinds of books children can read, you are limiting their access to information, limiting their ability to understand social situations, and limiting their development. You are implicitly saying: I don't trust you to be able to read about dangerous behavior without wanting to emulate it. Thank god my parents didn't limit my book choices they same way they did my TV, because otherwise, by the time I reached young-adulthood, I would have been burning with curiosity about all these "forbidden" topics (like my peers were) and probably prompted to make bad decisions.
The Last Witness says
And for all the defenders of an "absolute" restriction on any kind of censorship, I wonder how many would allow their children to roam the internet freely, to any porn or hate page they freely desire.
No censorship, remember?
Oh, and Deborah, do you restrict any access to words or pictures to your children at any age?
If so, it's censorship, decided by you, the parent.
Watery Tart says
I agree with the very first commenter wholeheartedly. While the internet age means the book is not entirely unavailable, what it DOES make censorship, is a class issue.
People with the internet and a credit card can get whatever they want. People with no credit card are limited to what is free, and people with no internet have no access at all to what is not in their local library.
I think public libraries should have EVERYTHING available. School libraries are a more difficult line to walk, but I would hedge toward 'having it' but requiring parental permission for some content (the equivalent of rated R, I guess), though honestly, by high school I think students should have access to read what they want to–exposure is what gives us critical thinking skills. People with no expousure before adulthood, may never have them.
Trying to censor a child is tricky even for a good parent. As a mischievious little brat in the 60s & 70s I still found ways to see what I was not supposed to. "Hidden" Playboys at a pals house was an afternoon for us kids on the block. I read the Exorcist probably earlier then a child should.
P. Grier says
What I see many people arguing is a no-brainer. Of course parents should have control over what their kids read. Of course kids should be allowed a diverse selection of books. Does anyone really argue that?
What isn't being discussed so much is what censorship actually is. The ALA site has a list of banned and challenged books– read the list, the books are challenged in schools, far less from libraries. Then read the reasons the book are on the list– many of them were simply removed from required readings lists, or changed for another book, something that happens all the time.
There is a plethora of excellent books, teachers change them all the time for various reasons. But, according to the ALA, if a book has been changed because it was challenged by a parent, it now has status on the list.
So, parents, the ALA is against you challenging the books your child is assigned to read in school. They are pleased enough to disallow your power instance.
The lesson here is, have the audacity to question a book your child is told to read, and you are one of the bad people. Don't question.
The schools and libraries who serve our children are, and should be, a reflection of what the community wants. Parents should have the right to question a book that seems to be a pet project of a teacher.
I agree with that, but I think there's a difference depending on the "challenge". It's different to say "I don't want my child reading that" (and substituting something else to read) than it is to say "I don't want any student to read that." The first, to me, is parental discretion, and the second, to me, is advocating book banning.
My parents never censored what I read. They knew they had given me the tools to assess the good and the bad. Every book has value, even if it teaches by showing a bad example.
Naomi Johnson says
Perhaps the WSJ is more complacent about the loss of liberties in the world than I. Perhaps the mainstream press no longer feels that the adamant guarding of the First Amendment is a worthy mission. But what would one expect of a Rupert Murdoch publication anyway?
I don't want to tell my kids what to read, I just want them to read. Whether it's 'Chocolate Wars,' 'Harry Potter,' comic books, or Harlequin romances or Mein Kampf – just read. The broader the scope of their reading, the more informed they become. The more informed, the better their decision-making. Guarding our children against ideas is one of the greatest disservices we can do for them.
Books shouldn't be banned per se. Perhaps something so far outside the pale should be available only after the reader passes a security check…after all, who knows? They might be terrorists or something. Why fight them here when we can fight them there? If you get my drift. And providing them (the terrorists, of course) with a book that could be harmful to us here…well, those books should be security restricted…or something. Okay, maybe banning books is a good thing…sometimes, right? For the common good, okay? Yeah. Let's just make everyone pass a security check first. That way we don't ban the books per se…just the readers.
i personally think that books should not be banned, yes parents should have the finally say in what there kids read but they do not have the right to take away what another kid's parents might want them to read
What bothers me the most are the schools that not only will not carry certain books in the libary, but order teachers to give detentions to students even seen off school grounds reading them! And, the teacher is threatened if he/she does not. (true story)
I think there is a lot of obuse in any sort of banning situation…and it is all rather sad.
Paul Neuhardt says
I suppose I should read the other comments before I sound off. I should, but I'm not going to. Sorry if I repeat others.
Let's be practical for a moment. To say that book banning in libraries was only an issue pre-internet isn't really true, is it? How many tween and teen-agers do you know that have their own credit cards to buy books on the internet? Sure, parents can buy the books for them, and let's heap some praise on those that do.
But how many parents are there that simply can't afford to buy books whenever their children want them? A lot more than some people think. Food and shelter sometimes come first for those families, and libraries are vital for kids living in those households.
I think there are other issues of practicality here, but I won't get in to them, because…
[scraping sound of soap box being dragged out] Isn't it the job of the schools to expose our children to a wide variety of thoughts, issues and expressions beyond what they get at home? It makes my blood boil to hear "Oh, well, parents can just do it at home if they want their kids to see or hear that sort of thing." Sorry, but I thought I was paying all those taxes to fund the school so they could play their part in teaching my children?
This is just as annoying to me as those lazy parents that don't bother to encourage their kids to study or to read because "that is what schools are for." It's a cooperative effort, folks, and neither the schools nor the parents should be handicapped in teaching their kids a wide variety of material.
Yes, yes, I know: "What if a parent objects to what is being taught at school?" How about having that parent step up to the plate, work with their child and say, "Yes, there are people out there with those points of view ro who do these things, but in this family we think they are wrong to do so. Here is what we believe and why." Think of it as a real educational opportunity to work with your child and help instill your values in them through the use of a counter-example. It's a gosh-darned effective instructional method, I assure you.
[scraping sound, fading in to the distance as soap box is returned to storage] Thank you for your time, and I apologize for the rant. As someone who gained much of my love of reading from my grandmother the school librarian, I have some sensitivity regarding this subject, and I'm prone to express myself without the tact filter in place.
Parents should decide. Period. And schools should be attentive to what parents say…NOT the other way around.
And libraries, supported with our tax dollars, should be answerable, to a large degree, to said parents (who are coincidentally enough paying the taxes to support them).
I am wholeheartedly and unreservedly in agreement with the WSJ editorial. It's about time someone said these things out loud, about time someone acknowledged the skewed authority that librarians and other book-buyers have in attempting to browbeat and call parents names for simply wanting to keep their kids "kids" for a little longer…and about time someone said, out loud, what has always been true: there is nowhere near the "censorship" problem in this country that a small group of screaming liberal "artists" want to claim there is.
If people want to experience true censorship, let them go pretty much anywhere else in the world and attempt to get away with many of the vile things that are performed, written, and portrayed "artistically" in our country. Their "art" would not only be shut down cold, but they might well have to fear for their lives.
Enough bleating is enough. If you think the US is a "censoring" environment, you truly don't know what you're missing. 🙂 Only the manmade global warming nonsense is a bigger, and possibly more dangerous, myth than the idea that we have to "watch" our culture or "they'll start banning things."
Unfortunately, you feed young minds enough nonsense persistently enough, and they'll start to believe it…and they have, for far too long. Which is why this WSJ editorial was such a welcome breath of fresh air amidst the clamor.
Yes, censorship is far worse in other countries. But I'm not sure how that means we should ignore it in our own. We don't have much censorship here for the very reason we don't ignore it.
And you want parents to decide… but what do you mean by that? You seem to want to restrict book access. But that becomes not parents deciding, but very particular parents with very particular points of view deciding for everyone. Parents should decide – for their own children. I'd really appreciate you not deciding for mine.
I don't want books removed from my child's (or my own) hand just because someone else doesn't like it. If they don't like it they don't have to read it, or allow their children to read it. That's their right and, indeed, their responsibility as a parent. But that right and responsibility extends only to their own children – not mine. That's my right and responsibility, and I prefer when people respect that.
Kids checking out of the library with certain books should have a permission slip from their parents saying it is okay to read. Mostly with the smaller children who may not even knowing it come out with a adult book instead of Nancy Drew. Parents should have a better say in what their own child is reading. The library shouldn't as much.
well i cant say almost anything cause i don't have kids but you should let kids read anything they want BUT they have to be over twelve cause that's when they become teenagers
Second posting on this topic.
Many of the pro-censorship arguments here remind me of a concept held dear by many religions – that of avoiding temptation. This expands into avoiding the bad things in life, trying to deny their existence.
I find that idea misguided.
Is it not by facing temptation, and ultimately denying it, that we grow stronger?
Don't we actually deal with the bad things in life by facing them and fighting them?
A bigot will spread their message, with or without their books being censored. Other's will pick up that message, with or without recourse to such books.
We can't fight that by pushing it underground. Didn't the alcohol prohibition teach us anything?
We can fight it by exposing it, providing counter reasoning, show up the fallacies and debunk the myths.
It's also very useful to know exactly who suports such bigotry, encourage them to come out into the open.
I discussed bigotry here. The same argument applies to each and every one of the subjects many wish to censor.
Why should a few people get to decide what everyone reads? Everything is not available for free on the internet…the library is a valuable resource for kids (or adults) that don't have a lot of money. So we can hardly assume the internet means any book is accessible to anyone.
Censorship is generally about a subset of people trying to impose their values onto the population at large. It has always caused more harm then good, and easily becomes a slippery slope to boot.
Unfortunately in today's litigation-happy society, school's are quick to restrict what is available to kids because of the fear that they will get complaints from parents who tend to leap frog school administration and go straight to the loudest local TV news station. As a middle school teacher at an upper middle class school with students who are 13 – 15 years old, I must still get a signed parent permission slip to show a movie above a G rating (the "P" in "PG" means "Parental" after all). So you can imagine why our school libraries are so afraid of shelving any books that might require the same guidance.
To turn the tables, but wouldn't the opposite of censorship–requiring libraries to stock all books and bookstores to provide anything a customer requested–be just as crippling to freedom of choice as banning books?
That is to say, if the owner of a bookstore wasn't allowed to decide what books to stock or distribute and which he or she didn't support, that this limits his or her freedoms? And that a school board or municipality couldn't make different decisions based on their demographic about which books to have in the school or public library from other school boards and local governments?
Perhaps the issue of whose freedom to uphold between the library or store owner and the individual was an issue twenty years ago, but today, with anything a click away from purchase on the internet, it seems a moot point and possibly infringing on the freedoms of the points of distribution.
P. Grier says
@ink: As a teacher, it is my responsibility to filter what goes on in my classroom. I may absolutely love a book, but decide it doesn't fit in my room. What goes on outside of my room I don't want to control. If Mom and Dad want a book or a movie available to their kid, it is none of my business.
That is why I can't see this as censorship. First, they are kids. Do we really want to have a completely hands off approach to what they read? Second, they have access to whatever their parents want them to have access to. Just not in my room.
P. Grier says
Parents should decide. Period. And schools should be attentive to what parents say…NOT the other way around.
I can't agree with this one, either. Who is in charge of the classroom, the teacher or the parent? Why hire expensive, highly trained specialists if you don't trust them to know more than you?
Education is a partnership. The school and the parents can only succeed if they work together, each having a say in the direction of the curriculum. The educators bring their experience and knowledge to the table, and the parents bring their hopes and dreams for their children. School, the way America does it, is a series of compromises for all sides.
Should you want complete control over your child's education, homeschooling is really the only option.
I agree with that. I think you have a right, as a teacher, to try and select the most appropriate books for your students. And as a parent I think I have a right to keep my kids from reading one of those selected books if I deem it appropriate. We're simply following through with our responsibilities. I fully support that. But there would be a problem if I stopped other children from reading that book. As neither their teacher or parent, that is not my responsibility. I have no right to prevent them access if they wish it (in accordance with their parent's wishes). That, to me, is something very different, censorhip on a small scale. It's not my place to make those decisions.
Spencer Ellsworth says
This is interesting to me. Any parent will want to keep their kids from explicit material until they're old enough to understand it. Heck, I heard Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day say that he monitors his kids' TV shows pretty closely.
I think we have a role as a society to help parents fulfill that without restricting a free flow of information.
My local library has been cashing in on the graphic novel phenomenon. Oddly enough, they stashed the adult graphic section (including HBO-type series like Ex Machina and American Virgin) right at the front of the library.
They stuck the young adult graphic novels, including all the Superman and Spider-Man stuff, in the back.
That seems to me to be a case of too much exposure. The library should carry those graphic novels, but don't put them in the front of the library so that school-age kids who come in looking for Spider-Man will walk out with Preacher.
Ve should burn all zee bookss! Ban everyzing! (Revelling in the freedom of anonymous posting)
Seriously, though: parents have to decide for their kids, and adults have to decide for themselves, that's the only way it can work in a free society. The point of banned books is to protect children from harmful things they are not prepared to deal with, so I have two ideas:
1. Stock anything and everything but put "controversial" or "explicit" materials Behind the Counter, where a librarian controls who can check those items out, and kids can't get at them without parental permission. Just like drugs at a pharmacy or guns at a sporting goods store. Not "evil", not banned, just protected from irresponsible use.
2. Let individual local librarians decide what to stock. Hopefully they will give the MAJORITY of the community what they want (remember how in this country the majority rules, and not the minority, however vocal they may be?). If the librarian is offending enough people or not getting what they do want, they should get fired/voted out of office, same as any public servant.
In my community, any librarian that introduced obscene material into a public library would be ridden out of town on a rail AND tarred/feathered. And that's exactly the way I want it, and why I live here. To each his own I say.
Mystery Robin says
Censorship and discernment are two different things. As a parent I try to read everything my kids do, but I can't get to everything. They have more reading hours in the day than I do. I appreciate a school library saying "no, this isn't appropriate for all the kids at this school" Especially because if I disagree and want them to read it, I can easily purchase it for them.
Parental discretion, yes. And to address another point that's come up: A few commenters have talked about the U.S. as a country where the majority rules, or about how community standards are determined by the majority.
But our country protects the minority voice, abhorrent though it may be to others. And the majority of a community is not allowed to trample on the minority's inalienable rights.
The more we stray from these concepts, the more we weaken democracy.
Surly Jason says
I don't trust any person, affiliation, group or government to tell me what is suitable for me. Who would you trust to control what you can learn?
L. V. Gaudet says
As a parent of two young children, I would not object to books having a rating system similar to movies.
Warn me on the back cover if a book contains explicit material, what age range it is relevant to, if it contains possibly touchy subject matter and what kind.
As a parent I think I should be the one who decides what is appropriate or not for my kids to view, listen to, and read. And in this day, with so many activities going on, who has time to read every book first, watch every movie first, and listen to every song first, before your children do.
P. Grier says
Ink– I understand. But then there is the parent who wants their child to have a special curriculum if the parent does not want them to read the class book. Oy. I don't think that should be an expectation.
Marla Warren says
As some people have already pointed out, censorship tends to be counter-productive, usually resulting in more people reading a book than otherwise would have. I remember what Teresa Bloomingdale wrote about her Catholic school days. She said the students were given one list of books that they were forbidden to read, and another list of books that they were required to read. Of course the students read all the books on the first list and ignored the ones on the second as much as possible. She wondered why a clever nun didn’t simply switch the lists.
My favorite illustration of this unintended consequence was the column “Ban It, Please” by the late great Mike Royko. Unfortunately the column is not online but it is contained in Royko’s book Like I Was Sayin’…
Royko was contacted by a reporter because some parents wanted Royko’s book Boss, a biography of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, removed from the senior class reading list and also from the school library. The parents objected to the profanity in the book.
Royko responded, “I think it’s terrific. I would like to encourage those parents to keep going and get that book banned.”
The reporter asked, “Why do you want it banned? Don’t you want people to read it?” Royko said, “Of course I do. That’s why I want it banned. There’s nothing that stimulates interest in a book as quickly as when someone tries to ban it.”
When the reporter asked about the broader issue of censorship, Royko’s response was:
“Let the American Civil Liberties Union worry about that. I’ll take the cash.”
Royko contacted the parents in charge of the attempt to ban his book, and offered them his support. He also told them he had another book on the market and he would appreciate their assistance in getting that one banned as well.
I'm coming late to this discussion, but… it's absolutely at the discretion of the parent. I'm a librarian. Yes, we don't have the money to stock everything, but we have the opportunity to get almost every book someone might want through interlibrary loan. If it's not available, that's one thing, but if you ask, we will try to get it. We have a collection development policy that we follow, and we do our best to stock our shelves with what the community wants. We're not going to *not* choose something because a parent has a problem with it.