7/13/2014 – CHALLENGED
What do a children’s story involving a wild rumpus, a novel about the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, and a teenager’s sarcastic narration of a few days in his life have in common? Not much on the surface. But Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak), The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), and The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) are members of a surprisingly large club: at one time or another, each of these literary works has been banned somewhere in the United States.
Although the United States government does not ban books, schools, churches, and/or various community groups or agencies often challenge certain titles. The American Library Association (ALA) defines a challenge to literature as “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or a group.” A banning is the removal of those materials, restricting the access of others.
Books are usually challenged with the best of intentions, usually to protect children from information or actions that are seen as inappropriate or difficult. Indeed, according to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, the top three reasons for challenging books are that the material is considered to be sexually explicit, that the material contains offensive language, or that the material is not suitable for any age group. But while this may sound reasonable to some, the question of what is offensive is a subjective one. Consider that in the Library of Congress exhibit Books that Shaped America, thirty of the titles listed have been either challenged or banned during their publication history. Apparently, one person’s influential volume is another’s unwanted controversy. A random sampling of the challenged/banned titles on this list includes:
- The Call of the Wild (Jack London, 1903) – bloody violence, inappropriate for adolescents
- The Jungle (Upton Sinclair, 1906) – supposedly socialist views expressed in the book
- Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851) – conflicted with “community values”
- The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850) – too much sympathy toward adulteress Hester … and this in 1977!)
A book needn’t be at least a century old to be considered objectionable. According to the ALA, the following books were the top five most-challenged titles of 2013:
- The Captain Underpants series (Dav Pilkey) – offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
- The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison) – offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie) – drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James) – nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) – religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
Although it’s easy to stereotype those who challenge the contents of books as a conservative segment of society protesting inappropriateness, the fact is that challenges come from all sectors of the general public. It’s not just those who might want to shield others from a personal definition of too much sex and violence; there are also those who seek to end perceived racism in books. Several books have been banned at times with this in mind, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) and Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder).
But censorship can also produce an interesting and unexpected side-effect: repeatedly, book challenges create waiting lists for a title where none existed previously. Suddenly, a book some people never intended to read becomes more desirable than it ever was before.
Many believe that the best way to deal with controversial content is to use it as a starting point for intelligent conversation between differing views. But do you have a limit, a personal line that you feel should not be crossed in literature? If so, is it enough for you to avoid the books you find objectionable, or are there instances where you feel strongly that a particular title should be taken off school, library, or even bookstore shelves?
This year, Banned Book Week is September 21 – 27th. More information may be found at http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/ or through the American Library Association at http://www.ala.org/bbooks/. Whatever your viewpoint, don’t stop reading!
Jill Morrow is the author of ANGEL CAFE (Simon & Schuster 2003) and THE OPEN CHANNEL (Simon & Schuster 2005). Her next novel, NEWPORT (HarperCollins/WilliamMorrow), will be published in summer of 2015. Jill has enjoyed a broad spectrum of careers and opportunities, from practicing law to singing with local bands. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
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