Banned Books Week. It actually exists. Having a week dedicated to banned books is both sad and enlightening, which is why you should run to your local library or dust off your bookshelf at home and read some of the works of art that someone else decided you shouldn’t.

Books on a bookshelf.

Photo courtesy of Jason Wong/Unsplash

My love of books began when I was in grade school. I was an avid reader, and I enjoyed reading just about anything I could get my hands on. Some of my favorite days during the school year were made possible by a visit from the bookmobile. As I stepped inside the traveling library idling in the school parking lot, I was transformed to distant, colorful lands filled with interesting characters. Over summer breaks, I participated in my local library’s book-reading contests. I felt such pride in seeing my name followed by gold, green, and red stars on the hand-written leader board made from white card stock propped up on an easel next to the circulation desk.

Some Favorites

One of the books I remember reading was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. This book was a rite of passage for young girls like me growing up in the late 70s. It’s a coming-of-age book about a girl trying to understand the changes she’s going through and trying to figure out who she is. The book has been challenged throughout the years because its content contains discussions about sex and religion.

Many other books I read as an adolescent fell victim to bans or challenges as well. These books include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Why are these books on a banned or challenged list? Because someone, somewhere found something within them that could be deemed offensive.

And that offends me.

People can get offended by any number of things – sex, religion, politics, language, or the word moist. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the word moist, so I’ll use it if I so choose. If other people have a problem with it, they can choose not to use the word. I don’t need a group of people telling me I can’t use the word moist just because they don’t like it.

That’s how I feel about banned books. I think we can all agree on certain words that have no place in our current language (and no, moist isn’t one of them), but language and books are two different things. Books tell a story – they delve into the minds of their characters and tell readers who that character is. Maybe that character is offensive by design and uses language we wouldn’t dare utter in reality. Sadly, though, some fictional characters are manifestations of actual people. So is art imitating life?

Banned Books Week

September 22-28, 2019 is Banned Books Week, organized by a coalition of institutions and organizations dedicated to preserving freedom of expression. This annual event, started in 1982 after an uptick in the number of books that were being challenged, usually takes place around the end of September each year. Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to express ideas and to have open access to information, as well as creates awareness regarding the dangers of censorship.

Book cover of Paradise by Toni Morrison

Pretty much anyone can challenge a book based on any number of reasons. Activist groups, politicians, parental organizations, library patrons, and others can challenge material that may be considered too explicit, too suggestive, too vulgar, too controversial, too anything. This screen shot from the website pen.org about the book Paradise by Toni Morrison, shows that the book landed on the banned books list because it “Contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve a breakdown.”

Wait. What?

Are you kidding me right now? I’ve read a lot of books in my time, and have neither had a breakdown as a result of reading them nor thought the author was trying to induce one with their words. The key words in the reason for the book ban are “reasonable person.” If you’re reasonable, you have a reasonable chance of not having a breakdown upon reading that book. That book has also won a Nobel Prize for Literature, like many of the books that appear on banned or challenged books lists. Hey, maybe that Nobel committee knows a thing or two.

Other books I found on the banned or challenged books list include Where’s Waldo? by Martin Hanford, the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Most of the books that appear on these lists have been made into blockbuster movies or television series (The Color Purple by Alice Walker and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, for example).

Censorship is based in fear. People are afraid of things they don’t understand. Ironically, reading can help enlighten people about topics they aren’t familiar with or (gasp!) don’t agree with. Book banning stifles creativity and imagination. It sends the message that people aren’t capable of thinking for themselves or making their own decisions. But we don’t need to be saved from ourselves. Differing beliefs and viewpoints help make the world go ’round.

So this week, celebrate #BannedBooksWeek by reading a book or two on the banned book list. Another resource for banned books can be found on the American Library Association’s website. Happy reading!

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