Librarians are all too familiar with the issue of banned books. I just finished reading a book called Life After Life by Kate Atkinson that refers back to when Adolf Hitler banned certain books. He tried to control people by burning those books whose thoughts and ideas might encourage them to think differently from him.
Sad to say, people today are still metaphorically burning books whose ideas do not conform to their own. The American Library Association received notice of 464 formal, written complaints filed with a library or school last year requesting that a book or other material be restricted or removed because of its content or appropriateness.
Here are some well-known, often-challenged books and some of what I see as particulary absurd reasons for which they've been challenged at one time or another:
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein was challenged at Cunningham Elementary School in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1985 for "encourag(ing) children to break dishes so they won't have to dry them." I remember the epidemic child dish-breaking frenzy of 1985. Don't you?
What book did some ministers and educators object to "for depicting women in strong leadership roles"? In Tennessee, the same book was challenged for "including good witches in the story. They argued that all witches are bad, therefore it is "'theologically impossible' for good witches to exist." It's The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Not sure to what they were referring, but a school district in Texas banned Herman Melville's Moby Dick because it "conflicted with their community values" in 1996.
There's lots of controversy over Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. I think most readers find the boy's requests of the tree's resources to be timely and reasonable throughout the stages of his life, and the tree's responses to the boy to be selfless. But some psychologists challenged the book on the basis that the book portrays a "vicious, one-sided relationship" where the greedy boy takes advantage of the self-sacrificing tree and never gives back. Frankly, I see it that way, too. But isn't it the mark of a really interesting, discussable book when it can be seen from different viewpoints and interpreted in different ways?
That rabble rouser Mary O'Hara's 1941 book My Friend Flicka was challenged for referring to a female dog as a "bitch." The nerve.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak has been challenged repeatedly "for images promoting witchcraft and supernatural elements," or for glorifying Max's temper tantram, "considered dangerous behavior" by psychologists.
Just in 2006 parents in a Kansas school district objected to E. B. White's Charlotte's Web in which passages about the spider dying were thought to be "inappropriate subject matter for a children's book," among other complaints.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne has been called "pornographic" and "obscene." There are actually no sex scenes at all in the book, and no sexual language.
When author Dav Pilkey found out his very popular Captain Underpants series of books was named the #1 challenged book of 2013, he said, "It's pretty exciting to be on a list that frequently features Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and Maya Angelou."
Of a list of the "100 Most Challenged Books of the 21st century (up to '09)," I'm tickled, and thankful, to say that I've read at least a third of them. The list includes the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, among many others. They have all been extraordinarily rewarding reading for me, and it's mind-boggling to think I might not have had them available to read at my library. It makes me wonder what I'm missing by not yet having read all of the others on the list.
At the Library this week, you'll find that list. You can also have your very own Blind Date with a Banned Book. Select a banned book that is wrapped in brown paper from our display table, just by the description pasted on the front. Check it out, take it home, and perhaps you'll discover a treasure that might not have been available had it been banned from your library. And celebrate your freedom to read!
San Juan Island Library
1010 Guard Street
Friday Harbor, WA 98250