Freedom to Read Under Fire as Attempts to Ban Books Continue

What would you do if you went to the library to check out a book, only to find it wasn't there? Not because it was already checked out, but because someone else disapproved of its content and had it removed from library shelves?
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What would you do if you went to the library to check out a book, only to find it wasn't there? Not because it was already checked out, but because someone else disapproved of its content and had it removed from library shelves?

Not likely to happen? Think again.

Despite the perception that censorship no longer occurs in the United States, attempts to ban books frequently take place in our schools and libraries. A challenge is a formal, written complaint requesting a book be removed from library shelves or banned from the school curriculum.

According to the American Library Association's (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), there were 464 reported attempts to remove or restrict materials from schools and libraries in 2012 and more than 17,700 attempts since 1990, when the ALA began to record book challenges.

Just recently Alabama State Senator Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison) called for a ban on the novel "The Bluest Eye," stating that the book should be removed from libraries and the 11th Grade Common Core reading list because he believes the book is "highly objectionable" and has "no value or purpose." "The Bluest Eye" is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's first novel and is often included in honors and Advanced Placement English classes. If successful, such an action will deny educators and students the right and the freedom to choose books and literature that contain diverse ideas drawn from across the social and political spectrum.

Holtzclaw's demand is just one example of reading list challenges that are currently taking place in Arizona, North Carolina and Ohio.

While not every book is intended for every reader, each of us has the right to choose for ourselves what to read, listen to or view. It is thanks to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents and students that most challenges are unsuccessful and national awareness campaigns such as Banned Books Week, Sept. 22 - 28, which stresses the importance of preventing censorship and ensuring everyone's freedom to read any book, no matter how unorthodox or unpopular.

Book challenges to school library materials are not the only threat to students' freedom of inquiry. Online resources, including legitimate educational websites and academically useful social networking tools, are being blocked and filtered in school libraries. In an effort to raise awareness, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the ALA, has designated one day during Banned Books Week, as Banned Websites Awareness Day - Wednesday, Sept. 25 - and is asking school librarians and other educators to promote an awareness of how excessive filtering affects student achievement.

For more than 30 years, libraries and bookstores have celebrated Banned Books Week by hosting special events and exhibits on the power of literature and the harms of censorship. Many will showcase selections from the ALA's OIF's Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2012. The list is released each spring and provides a snapshot of book removal attempts in the U.S. the previous year. The Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2012 reflects a range of themes and consists of the following titles:

  1. "Captain Underpants" (series), by Dav Pilkey (Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group)
  2. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie (Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group)
  3. "Thirteen Reasons Why," by Jay Asher (Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group)
  4. "Fifty Shades of Grey," by E. L. James (Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit)
  5. "And Tango Makes Three," by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson (Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group)
  6. "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini (Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit)
  7. "Looking for Alaska," by John Green (Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group)
  8. "Scary Stories" (series), by Alvin Schwartz (Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence)
  9. "The Glass Castle," by Jeanette Walls (Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit)
  10. "Beloved," by Toni Morrison (Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence)

Readers from across the United States and around the world will demonstrate their support for free speech by participating in a Virtual Read-Out on YouTube where participants will read from their favorite banned books. More than 1,500 videos have been submitted since the read-out began in 2011, including many by bestselling authors and celebrities such as Sherman Alexie, Laurie Halse Anderson, Khaled Hosseini, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Whoopi Goldberg, Lauren Myracle and many others.

For the first time this year, Twitter parties will help promote the message of Banned Books Week. A party will be held from noon to 2 p.m., Eastern time on Sept. 25. Supporters are urged to tweet using the hashtag #bannedbooksweek.

We must keep in mind that even if the motivation to ban or challenge a book is well intentioned, the outcome is detrimental. Censorship denies our freedom as individuals to choose and think for ourselves. Young people especially deserve our trust. Reading literature that challenges them and encourages them to think about others and their own place in the world does no harm and can only spur them to become better students and better persons.

Danger does not arise from viewpoints other than our own; the danger lies in allowing others to decide for us and our communities which reading materials are appropriate!

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