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Monday, 02 October 2017 06:54

Banned Books Week: Celebrating Our Freedom to Read

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2017.10.2.Berkowitz.BFThe 2016 list of most challenged books definitely reflect the politics of our times. (Photo: Kennedy Library / Flickr)BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

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Graphic novels tackling the issues of sex and gender made up a chunk of the 2016 list of most challenged books, a list published each year by the American Library Association during Banned Books Week. In case you were preoccupied by headlines about the Trump administration's woefully inadequate response to the people of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria's path of destruction; the president's attempted reinvigoration of the "culture wars" by slamming NFL players (mostly Black), for taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem; and HHS Secretary Tom Price's resignation over his profligate use of government aircraft, last week was the 35th annual Banned Books Week.

"Of the top 10 books challenged in libraries, the top five were challenged for having LGBTQ content, which seems pretty significant," Mariko Tamaki, author of This One Summer, the number one book on the list, told The Washington Post's Comic Riffs.

Every year, typically during the last week in September, the American Library Association (ALA) –- and numerous other organizations -- celebrates, that's right, celebrates -- Banned Books Week. At the bannedbooksweek.org website, folks there even greet you with a hearty "Happy Banned Books Week!"

Last week was indeed Banned Books Week, which annually celebrates the freedom to read, and there were celebrations across the country in theaters, bookstores and online venues.

Numerous organizations, including the ALA, the American Booksellers Association, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Index on Censorship (UK), the National Coalition Against Censorship, PEN America and Project Censored, all held activities designed to celebrate intellectual freedom.

Since Banned Books Week was launched in 1982, "in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries," the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes its list of "The Top Ten Most Challenged Books," bannedbooksweek.org pointed out. The list is compiled through media reports, as well as censorship reports submitted to the office through its challenge reporting form.

Since 2001, the ALA top 10 list has included such literary classics as Beloved, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Check out the annual Top Ten Most Challenged Books lists.)

The 2016 list of most challenged books definitely reflect the politics of our times. The Top Ten of 2016 are:  


This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki.

Reasons: Challenged because it includes LGBT characters, drug use and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes.


Drama, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier.

Reasons: Challenged because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.


George, written by Alex Gino.

Reasons: Challenged because it includes a transgender child, and the "sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels."


I Am Jazz, written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas.

Reasons: Challenged because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education and "offensive" viewpoints.


Two Boys Kissing, written by David Levithan.

Reasons: Challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content.


Looking for Alaska, written by John Green.

Reasons: Challenged for a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to "sexual experimentation."


Big Hard Sex Criminals, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky.

Reason: Challenged because it was considered sexually explicit.


Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread, written by Chuck Palahniuk.

Reasons: Challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being "disgusting and all around offensive."


Little Bill (series), written by Bill Cosby and and illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood.

Reason: Challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author.


Eleanor & Park, written by Rainbow Rowell.

Reason: Challenged for offensive language.


The New York Times' Christine Hauser noted that on this year's list, "The most common threads were gender, religious diversity and L.G.B.T. issues."

As The Washington Post's Michael Cavna pointed out, "for the first time, the top two most challenged works were graphic novels for young adults, and half of the top 10 most challenged books were illustrated narratives."

As ala.org/advocacy/bbooks pointed out, the books on the above list, and others, "targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools," are rarely removed "from the location where the challenge took place, thanks to local literary champions such as librarians, students, and patrons who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read."

As with all things, not everyone is on board with Banned Books Week. Writing in The Hill, Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University, maintained that "The ALA … uses the occasion to veer off into shrill Chicken Little-like panic about the supposed evil forces in America that want to censor reading material and diminish a person's right to read what he pleases."

And, under the headline "Ban Banned Books Week," This Week's Matthew Walther called it an "annual festival of cloying liberal self-satisfaction beloved by people who like the idea of reading more than they do actually sitting down with Edward Gibbon or even Elmore Leonard." Writing this past Friday, Walther added: "I wish I could say that Banned Books Week, which blessedly ends tomorrow, is so stupid that it makes my brain hurt. It's actually so stupid that it makes me wish I didn't have a brain."

We'll give Kay McSpadden, a high school English teacher in York, South Carolina, the last word: "I have great sympathy for parents who don't want their children exposed to bad language and topics beyond their maturity level. When my sons were young, I offered them guidance in the choice of books and other entertainment. But I would never presume to make decisions for other people's children, and that's what censorship does.

"The freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment –- of religion, speech, the press, assembly, petition -– ensure our freedom to read. Like all freedoms, we can lose it if we aren't careful. This week is as good a time as any to remember that."