“Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate, and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of work, and the viewpoints of both the author and the receiver of information.”
–Intellectual Freedom Manual, by the American Library Association, 7th edition
It is once again Banned Books week, and I still have a few things to say about the subject. I’m going to start by referring folks to the American Library Association website, where you can find information about banned books and an extremely interesting list of the top ten books challenged by year.
Books get challenged for all sorts of reasons, and by all sorts of people. A couple of years back, I was on a panel on the subject for a regional convention of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators that included a writer who’d been told that a particular young writers’ conference would allow him to speak but would not make his most recent book available to children because the main character was a high school boy trying to figure out how to come out as homosexual to his friends and family; a writer who’d been told by a different conference that they would allow him to speak but would not carry his book because it had overtly religious content; and me, which is an interesting story on its own.
I was on that panel because six months earlier, I’d been at lunch with a number of fellow writers who had just heard about the first incident mentioned above. They were all indignant, shocked, appalled, and surprised…and while I was just as indignant and appalled at the conference’s attitude, it fairly quickly became obvious to everyone at the table that I was neither shocked nor surprised that something like that could happen “in this day and age.” So they asked me why.
“Because that kind of thing happens all the time,” I said.
“No, no, certainly not!” they all told me.
So I told them about the teacher who almost got fired when a parent objected to her reading Calling on Dragons in her classroom, because “it taught witchcraft!” I mentioned the fellow YA author who was disinvited from a school visit (these are day-long programs where an author talks to several classes worth of kids and usually has lunch with the teachers, and for some YA authors, they contribute a goodly chunk to their income) because a parent noticed a title on her extensive bibliography that “sounded occult” (it was a mystery, with not a whiff of the supernatural anywhere in the text). I pointed out the well-publicized attempts to suppress the Harry Potter books (the series is #1 on the ALA’s top ten most challenged books of the decade for 2000-2009), and a few less-well-publicized attempts to remove from school shelves things like The Wizard of Oz (because Dorothy is too independent and solves her own problems), The Lord of the Rings (because it is “Satanic”), and Grimm’s Fairy Tales (because the stories are “too violent”).
None of this was, I thought, stop-the-presses news – certainly not to anyone who writes fantasy. But the other writers at the table were shocked all over again. One of them happened to be on the program committee for the regional conference, and she went home and put the panel together.
When she asked me to be on the panel, I immediately said yes, and then I went off to the internet to do some research. I wanted some examples that would hit closer to home. I found quite a lot, but as I looked through the web sites, I noticed something interesting. I live in Minnesota. All of the descriptions of book-banning incidents in Minnesota were from the websites of organizations based in distant states: Florida, Texas, Washington D.C., Georgia.
So I poked a little more. There were quite a few local web sites publicizing Banned Books Week, and all of them did indeed have descriptions of surprising book-banning incidents. Incidents that took place in other states, like Texas, Georgia, and California.
OK, I admit that this is not a scientifically valid statistical survey. Still, it’s suggestive. Book banning doesn’t seem to be something that anyone wants to admit happens in their own backyard. And it is extremely easy to avoid admitting that it happens, because it is very, very rare that more than a couple of people even hear about a challenge. Often, the librarian (or, rarely, bookseller) and maybe an administrator are the only ones who ever hear that someone has objected to a particular book. They don’t notify other parents (the vast majority of book challenges are to schools or school libraries). They certainly don’t notify authors unless there’s an appearance involved – the only reason I know about my book and that teacher is that she came up to me at a conference and told me herself.
You can find some of the information if you look for it. The ALA collects statistics, but they can only include challenges for which there is a record – a newspaper article or a written report. By some estimates, that’s barely half the number of challenges or objections. And how many people ever bother to go looking? For the stuff that isn’t reported…well, you have to ask the school librarian or volunteer for the library review committee (if there is one and if it includes non-employee members).
I support Banned Books Week. I support it for all kinds of books. Yes, there are some that I personally wouldn’t have in my house, but if I only object to the banning of books I like and agree with, I’m as bad as the people issuing challenges to books I love.