Books have the power to change lives. That is the one prevailing idea that makes me so proud and honored to be a librarian. Think back to the books you have read, either as a child or an adult, that so moved or inspired you that you know you would not be the same person today without their influence. Now imagine if you were forbidden from reading those very books, or even knowing they existed. Each year a week is set aside to celebrate the freedom to read: Banned Books Week, sponsored by a dozen literary and educational organizations, including the American Library Association, falls on Sept. 30 through Oct. 6. Librarians in particular use this yearly event to emphasize the role libraries play in a democratic society, allowing every person access to books that are relevant to their lives.
One of my favorite quotes on this subject, attributed to Jo Godwin, states that “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” Behind it is the idea that not everyone has the same definition of what is offensive or obscene, all readers should be free to choose how they educate and entertain themselves, and parents should be the ones to decide what is appropriate for their children. You may be very surprised by the many novels now considered classics that were considered “inappropriate” by city councils and school boards, and are still challenged to this day. It is often only through the efforts of ordinary citizens that these books remain on the shelves. A book is considered “challenged” if a formal or informal complaint is brought forward, while a book is “banned” if it has been removed from shelves or restricted in its use by age or grade level.
I would bet that many of you read Mark Twain’s iconic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as a teenager, or even as a pre-teen. The book has landed on challenged and banned lists countless times over the last century and a half since its original publication. In fact, in 1885, just one year after it was published, the Concord Public Library removed it from the shelves, citing its “coarse language.” Of course, the idea of a young white boy, without the supervision of adults, traveling down the Mississippi with a runaway slave certainly didn’t sit well with many in an age when the passing of Jim Crow laws was gaining steam. The latest occurrence of censorship of “Huckleberry Finn” surrounds a new edition published in 2011 in which the “n word” is replaced with the word “slave.” I think Twain himself said it best: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
Often books were removed from shelves when the political content they contained ran counter to the ideals of those in power. George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” were banned in many states, citing Orwell’s “pro-communist” sympathies. In 1963, “Animal Farm” was challenged in Wisconsin due to the use of the phrase “masses will revolt.” “1984” may well be the most ironic book title to ban, given the entire premise of the story is a bleak dystopian future in which Big Brother wields the power of totalitarian censorship.
Some examples of more recent publications facing censorship include the “Harry Potter” series by J. K. Rowling, on the grounds of the use of witchcraft, the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman, charged with being against the Catholic Church and a whole stack of books for children on health and body awareness. The most ridiculous instance of book banning, however, must be the case of Bill Martin, Jr.’s, classic children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” The Texas Board of Education removed it from the curriculum of the entire state in 2010 when someone confused the author with an obscure writer of books on Marxism who also happened to have the name Bill Martin.
Other favorite banned books of mine include Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia,” a Newbury-winning chapter book about friendship, imagination and loss. A terrific coming-of-age book is “Forever...” by Judy Blume, an author who often finds herself on banned lists because of her frank discussion of many uncomfortable issues that teens have to deal with, like sexuality, body image and peer pressure. “Maniac Magee” remains one of the books I remember most from my childhood and not just because it brings up important yet controversial issues of race and class. As an adult, my favorite and most reread book continues to be “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf. Given its bold use of stream-of-consciousness writing, it is certainly not to everyone’s reading tastes, but if you love the feeling of being in the city, surrounded by people and sights and sounds, give it a try. On the other end of the spectrum, I also recently devoured “The Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the story of a teenager in a dystopian future America in which she has to fight for her life, literally. Of course, one of the best dystopian novels I have ever read is “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, the story of an ordinary woman who is forced to leave her job at a library when it is shut down and the books are taken away. She eventually is forced to leave her child and husband and become a servant in the home of a powerful government official, to carry his children when his wife is thought to be infertile.
All of these books at one time or another have been challenged or banned by those who believed they are too powerful to be read by just anyone. Find these and more at the Brainerd Public Library and watch for special displays and book lists starting Sept. 30.
Change your life today: Read a banned book.
LAUREL M. HALL is the senior outreach coordinator for Kitchigami Regional Library System.