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Joan E. Bertin Headshot

Banned Books Week: Still Needed in the U.S.

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This piece was co-authored by Chris Finan, President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

For a country that venerates its First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the United States tries to ban books with alarming frequency.

Stick a pin in each place where there's been a challenge to a school or library book, and you'll have a map of the United States that looks like a hedgehog in need of a haircut.

This year already, challenges have been reported from Montana to Indiana to Texas, in high schools and libraries, and from classics like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, to newer books like Brent Hartinger's The Geography Club and Chris Crutcher's Chinese Handcuffs.

This February in West Bend, Wisconsin, a local couple filed a petition calling for the Library Advisory Board to remove or label several Young Adult titles, including Francesca Lia Block's Baby Be Bop and Stephen Chobsky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because they felt that all the books in the young-adult section that dealt with homosexuality were "gay-affirming." The couple also requested that the library build a collection of books by "ex-gays" in order to achieve an ideological balance.

As this debate raged on, four members of the library board were not reappointed because of accusations that they were "promoting the indoctrination of the gay agenda." Then the Christian Civil Liberties Union Milwaukee branch filed a lawsuit against the city of West Bend, complaining that the mere presence of some of the young adult books in the library caused "mental and emotional harm" to the elderly plaintiffs. The CCLU seeks $30,000 in damages per plaintiff, the mayor's resignation, and the removal of the books for a public burning (literally!).

As the late, great, and much-censored author Kurt Vonnegut would say: And so it goes.

In 1982, booksellers, librarians, and publishers launched Banned Books Week in response to threats of censorship like this. During this year's event, which will be held from Sept. 26 to Oct. 3, hundreds of bookstores and libraries will mount displays and sponsor events designed to remind Americans of the precarious state of our most precious freedom -- the freedom to read, write, think and say whatever we want. (A list of these events can be found on the Banned Books Week website).

There were more than 400 book challenges in 2007, 513 reported in 2008 and an on-going count in 2009, according to the American Library Association. The most frequently challenged book on the ALA's list for the last three years was And Tango Makes Three, a children's book that tells the true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who found an abandoned egg, hatched it, and nurtured the chick. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still ranks as one of the most commonly challenged books because of its racial epithets. Just recently, Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl was challenged by the parent of a young teen because she felt the story of a kidnap victim was too graphic for adolescents.

Of course, parents have certain rights to direct their children's education. What we oppose is the effort of one parent or a group of parents to make decisions about what other people's children may read. The First Amendment gives all parents the right to make choices about their children's education.

In our diverse society, it is inevitable that people will be offended by something they see, read or hear, and that some will respond by advocating the suppression of what they dislike. Demands for censorship come from both ends of the political spectrum and all points in between.

Nor should we expect this situation to change. It is a measure of the health of our democracy that people feel free to protest. But because the fight over books will continue, so must the battle against censorship. Banned Books Week offers everyone an opportunity to join the effort to save the books -- all of them.

Free speech will remain free only as long as we are willing to fight for it.


Joan Bertin is Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship and Chris Finan is President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, both located in New York City. Together, they are co-directors of the Kids Rights to Read Project, which responds to book challenges and bans and provides support, education, and advocacy to people facing book censorship.