The ALA’s annual Top Ten Most Challenged Books
list reads like a snapshot of the year’s cultural fears and preoccupations. Almost half of the books on the 2017 list feature LGBTQIA characters, and several shine a spotlight on young people of color. The same is true for 2016; going back further in time, concerns about sexual content, violence, religion, the occult, and racism dominate the lists.
The Top Ten lists are a sobering reminder that censorship is alive and well in America. And while it’s important to recognize that many book banning campaigns begin as well-intentioned, community-based efforts to keep children safe, a glance at the last 20 years of Top Ten lists shows that such efforts overwhelmingly suppress books by and about minorities, at a time when America is growing increasingly demographically diverse. It’s also clear that there’s a relationship between the books that are routinely banned and the social issues dividing Americans: sex education and abstinence, Black Lives Matter, immigration, LGBTQIA issues, and religion.
Started in 1982 by First Amendment activist, censorship critic, and librarian Judith Krug, in collaboration with the American Booksellers Association, Banned Books Week celebrates and advocates for the freedom to read books by and about all kinds of people and experiences. Each September, an international coalition of booksellers, librarians, teachers, publishers, journalists, and readers work together to draw attention to the ways censorship harms community and democracy by limiting who will be heard.
Sometimes discomfort is a necessary precursor to acceptance.
In keeping with this goal, the official theme for Banned Books Week 2018 is “Banning Books Silences Stories.” Many of the most frequently banned books tell hard and true stories about what it’s like to live in a racist place or inhabit a subjugated body. They acknowledge the painful and funny realities of growing up, like bullying, depression, puberty, and experimentation. It would be hard to examine issues like these authentically without using language or depicting events that make some people uncomfortable; sometimes that discomfort is a necessary precursor to acceptance and empathy.
When books like To Kill a Mockingbird
and The Bluest Eye
are banned repeatedly for profanity and sexuality, it’s our responsibility to ask: Is it more important to protect teens from the N-word and adult themes — issues they’ll encounter on TV, online, and in their own relationships — or to allow a discussion about the complex relationships between race, power, sex, and violence that drive America? The same is true for books like I Am Jazz
, which address gender identity. Kids today will encounter individuals who identify as LGBTQIA, and may identify as such themselves; should we be banning the tools that might address their (and their parents’) questions?
At Powell’s, we believe in the power of language to illuminate and explicate challenging ideas and realities. We also believe that everyone deserves the joy of opening a book that seems like it was written just for them, that whispers, arms outstretched: You are not alone.
Creating that joy is what gets us up in the morning and it is what reinforces our commitment to Banned Books Week. For every book, its reader. For every reader, their voice.