A Celebration of Our Right to Read
by Erika Goodrich and James Wargacki, Learning & Research Services
How often do you think about your right to read? It is said that words can change the world, whether they’re spoken aloud or written down. The First Amendment recognizes the power of words, enshrining our freedom of speech. But what happens when that freedom is challenged? When we’re told we can’t speak out, can’t read words that might challenge our thoughts or give us new ideas?
September 24-30 is Banned Books Week, a time of year designated to raise awareness of banned and challenged books and an opportunity to understand the consequences of censorship.
Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 by Judith Krug in response to the sudden surge of challenged books. Krug, a First Amendment defender and library advocate, strongly opposed censorship. She felt that no one should be restricted from books or ideas, and that readers should have the freedom to develop their own opinions.
In the thirty-four years since Krug began her initiative, there have been more than 11,300 books challenged, according to the American Library Association (ALA). Just last year ALA reported 323 challenges, including Alex Gino’s George and Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk.
If a book is challenged, someone is trying to keep it from the hands of readers. ALA’s Office of Intellectual Property has reported the top three reasons for a challenge are: 1) the material was considered to be sexually explicit, 2) the material was considered to have offensive language, and 3) the material was considered unsuited for any age group.
Challenges by various groups have resulted in books commonly regarded today as classic literature being banned from libraries and schools across the United States. In 2004 Michael and Tonya Hartwell spearheaded an unofficial ban of King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland after they decided the LGBTQ content of the book was inappropriate for their seven year old daughter stating, “[she] is not old enough to understand something like that, especially when it’s not in our beliefs.” Michael and Tonya refused to return the book to their child’s school library because they wanted to prevent other children from being exposed to the story.
Other works that have been challenged include:
- Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo has been challenged numerous times for the depiction of its main character. The book has been described as “dangerous and cruel” as well as “the kind of dangerous and obsolete books that must go.”
- Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is often challenged for its obscene language.
- Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was notably challenged in Eureka, Illinois in 1995 for its racy content. The full version of the book was banned by the Eureka School Board and replaced with an annotated version.
- In 1973 in Orem, Utah, sales of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange caused an independent book dealer to be arrested for selling obscene books. The charges were later dropped, but the dealer was forced to close the store and relocate to another city.
- Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been challenged multiple times for its obscene content, including one instance in Drake, North Dakota in 1973 when the local school board ordered that copies of the book be confiscated and burned.
- Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is often challenged for its use of obscene language. In Irvine, California in 1993, a teacher at Venado Middle School used black markers to censor all of the offending language before giving the books to students.
Banned Books Week at Richter
Banned Books Week highlights these and many other influential works that have endured censorship, bringing together proponents of free speech, librarians, publishers, teachers, and book lovers of all genres. This year’s events specifically highlight book bans and challenges both domestically and abroad.