Banned Books Week, Sept. 22-28 this year, is an international effort to celebrate the freedom to read and not to take this privilege for granted.
The Banned Books Week Coalition [bannedbooksweek.org/coalition] is an alliance of diverse organizations that supports education, advocacy and the creation of programming opposing book censorship.
The theme this year is “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark,” with supporters urging everyone to “Keep the Light On.”
Founded in 1982, Banned Books Week fights for freedom of expression and claims the need is more urgent than ever.
The coalition asserts that in recent years “the attacks on the right to read have become bolder, as legislatures have introduced bills that would eliminate crucial safeguards for the right to read books that some people find offensive.”
According to the website, the American Library Association tracked 347 challenges to library, school and university materials in 2018.
The ALA also recorded 483 books that were challenged or banned in 2018.
The top 11 were: George, by Alex Gino; A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, by Jill Twiss; Drama, by Raina Telgemeier; This Day in June, by Gayle E. Pitman; Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan; Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey; The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas; Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher; This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki; Skippyjon Jones, by Judy Schachner; and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
The first five were attacked for LGBTQ content. The other six were challenged for a variety of reasons, including encouraging disruptive behavior (Captain Underpants), addressing teen suicide (Thirteen Reasons Why), depicting stereotypes of Mexican culture (Skippyjon Jones), and others for profanity, drug use, sexual references, violence and gambling.
Thirteen Reasons Why, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Drama, George and The Hate U Give are five books also banned in 2017.
Also most banned in 2017 are To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
To Kill a Mockingbird was challenged and banned for violence and offensive racial slurs, while The Kite Runner was said to lead to terrorism and promote Islam.
I’ve read both of these books, Harper Lee’s several times. While To Kill a Mockingbird is a timeless classic that stands among the greatest works of literature ever, The Kite Runner is no less a monumental achievement.
A short article in USA Today on Sept. 3 snapped my head back. I thought it a joke, until I verified the story.
The article states: “A Catholic school in Tennessee removed the Harry Potter books from its library after the school’s priest decided they could cause a reader to conjure evil spirits.”
The Rev. Dan Reehil of Nashville’s pre-K through eighth-grade St. Edward Catholic School “said he consulted exorcists in the U.S. and Rome who recommended removing the books,” according to emails obtained by The Tennessean.
“The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells,” Reehil wrote in an email, “which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”
Let’s repeat that: Reehil believes the book’s curses and spells are real, not products of author J.K. Rowling’s imagination.
Not all parents of the school’s children supported this decision, according to various reports. Yet the school’s pastor, “out of an abundance of caution,” decided that the Harry Potter series, which “has received attention over its presentation of magic and witchcraft,” should be removed, according to a story in the Washington Post.
The fantastically popular Potter books have been the subject of other attempted bans in schools and libraries in the years since their release.
Know your rights
The Banned Books Week coalition offers ideas on how the public can defend and support everyone’s right to read what they choose.
The most important point is to know your rights: “The First Amendment protects the freedom to read. Everyone is entitled to express their opinions about a book, but they don’t have the right to limit another person’s access to information. Censorship is most effective when people don’t know [how to] defend their rights.”
Public and private institutions can apply First Amendment rights differently. Government entities like public schools are obliged to adhere to the First Amendment, while private schools can restrict what students read.
Students don’t have the same rights as adults, according to the coalition, which states that “schools can put limited restraints on free expression.”
This website can help students understand their rights: ncac.org/resource/be-heard.
And the ALA has a useful website for librarians: www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill.
The coalition advises educators, librarians, parents and students to be prepared for challenges and be able to defend controversial choices.
Suggestions include: establishing clear policies and guidelines that can head off any challenges, segregate material on display based upon age-appropriate content, be involved with the community and open to discuss delicate issues, and stay informed of developments.
Reporting censorship is critical, because advocates of free expression need to know what’s happening in order to take action against censorship. Contact experts if a challenge seriously threatens to deny anyone’s right to read.
These organizations are ready to defend the public’s access to reading material, whether it’s a book, graphic novel, comic book or play: the American Library Association, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Council of Teachers of English.
Stepping forward and speaking out at school board meetings or other school and community events and meetings to support the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression is a powerful tool.
Also – and this can be a hard pill to swallow – opponents of censorship have to be prepared to defend the public’s right to read material with which they may personally disagree.
Because once the door is opened to ban some material, it’s a slippery slope that can lead to further censorship of material one may like.
For Banned Books Week resources, see: bannedbooksweek.org/resources/
To celebrate Banned Books Week next week, read a banned book! And show your support for our precious freedom to read.
Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at email@example.com