Back in 1984, that fateful year when we first decided to teach our kids at home, very little curriculum was available—strange as it may seem to those moms and dads who wander the apparently endless curriculum halls of homeschooling conventions today. You can pore over catalogues and websites until your eyes glaze over, and still not come to the end of it. But all I could find back in the pioneer days were materials from a Mennonite publisher and two leading Christian-school textbook publishers. The latter would not, at the time, sell directly to home educators.
It turned out to be a good thing because, even though I clung to a few textbooks for life support during the first few years, I soon learned to rely on the vast resources of the public library. By the end of high school, almost everything came from the library: historical fiction, classics of western civilization, targeted science books for research projects. Library day came around every single week, and part of our reading program was requiring the kids to check out and read one book from each major Dewey decimal category twice per year.
The American library system is a wonder of the world, as far as I’m concerned, and the American Library Association has done a lot to promote and develop it. The ALA dates back to 1876, when a conference of 103 librarians met in Philadelphia during the national Centennial Exposition. Their resolved aim was “to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense,” a reasonable goal for any professional organization. What this meant in particular probably varied with the region. In the small town where my husband grew up, the librarian was an arbiter of community standards, who often challenged the children on their books choices. She wouldn’t let my brother-in-law check out The African Queen without permission from his parents.
In time, mission creep occurred—probably inevitable, especially in an organization as education-oriented as the ALA. Today, in addition to promoting the interests of its members, the ALA dedicates itself to six other “Key Action Areas,” including Diversity, Education and Lifelong Learning, Equal Access, Literacy, Technology, and Intellectual Freedom.
That last “Key” is the reason for Banned Books Week, an annual consciousness-raising exercise founded in 1982 by the late Judith Krug, a “library activist” (which would probably seem an oxymoron to my brother-in-law) and first-amendment champion. Banned Books Week is also sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of American Publishers, the National Association of College Stores, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English and PEN American Center. In other words, everyone with a book to sell, publish, or promote. The stated goal of BBW is to stress “the importance of ensuring the availability of . . . unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.” (And you really can buy a t-shirt.)
Several commenters have commented that the name is a misnomer: None of the books celebrated, listed, or defiantly read aloud have actually been banned. All have been challenged in some way, and some have even been removed from a school library here and there, but all are available. A few clicks on Amazon or ABEbooks could deliver a copy to your door for as little as five bucks.
But maybe that’s too literal a definition of the word “banned.” According to Doug Archer, past chair of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, “Just because libraries and librarians have been so good at defending the freedom of the public to read as they choose, does that meanwe’re being dishonest? No, it just means we’re doing our job.” In other words, were it not for the hardy souls manning the battlements, every street corner in middle America would be blazing with book bonfires.
I’m exaggerating, or course. But any library patron knows that the stacks are packed with “unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints” and as long as those viewpoints are situated in the adult section, with the steamy romances and R-rated crime novels, most of us don’t think anything about it. Almost all book challenges come from parents who are concerned about material they find age-inappropriate. The ALA’s own estimates are that over the last ten years American libraries (most of them school libraries) suffered 4,660 reported challenges–though they suspect many more go unreported. Material is cited for (in descending order) sexually explicit content, offensive language, general “age inappropriateness,” violence, homosexuality, and religious viewpoints. A list of “Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century” is an oft-visited page on the ALA website. Of the Top Ten for 2010, one is a picture book, seven are YA novels, and two are adult titles that are assigned for class reading or included on high school reading lists. Again: almost all, if not absolutely all, of these books are challenged because of their inappropriateness to minor children, not to the community at large.
Most city libraries mark Banned Books Week with events including challenged authors reading their challenged works, book talks and discussions, panels and forums with community leaders, and the like. And it’s not limited to books: this year, the ALA adds a new event to the normally scheduled read-outs and author appearances: Banned Website Awareness Day, Sept. 28. High school students are encouraged to participate in “Don’t Filter Me,” an “information gathering activity” (i.e., ALA research project) where they will try to access selected gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered websites in order to track whether their school filtering system blocks access to these sites. We can’t wait to find out what these intrepid kids will discover!
What’s usually missing from these observances is any sustained discussion of the parents’ role in determining what their children are exposed to. Any address to that side of the conflict tends to be sarcastic, bitter, or condescending, as if most parents were backwoods cretins (though sometimes well-intentioned) who don’t have a clue about the real world. The fact is that the vast majority of parents are too busy, distracted, timorous, or ignorant to even frame a challenge to the establishment, and those who do are the real rebels.
All this leads me to suspect that Banned Books Week has become, at its best, much ado about very little–and at its worst, an opportunity for overreach and grand-standing. But our little local library, with its passionate book circles and cuddly story hours, seems far from that madding crowd. That’s why RedeemedReader would like to use the opportunity of Banned Books Week to think about how we can show our appreciation for the librarians who help our kids find good books to read. And maybe even suggest some good books to our librarians.
Not that everything is rose in local-library land, and there does come a time to take action. If, for instance, a local library is allowing porn access to children (or anybody, really), it should be challenged. Foul language, explicit sexual content, and graphic violence really are inappropriate for young ages and parents have a right to speak up about what their kids are exposed to. But we can do more than just yell. A Christian’s response, in non-emergency situations, is to not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. My husband once got pornographic magazines removed from a local small-town supermarket by a simple, reasonable, and friendly appeal to the store owner. Sometimes that’s all it takes. More often it takes time, temperance, and careful relationship-building.
Emily’s suggestion from yesterday is the first step: take time to pray for your local librarians, and the ALA, that they will see the light and learn to better distinguish good literature from bad. And then think about how to build a relationship based on respect and gratitude. We’ll be thinking together about that for the next two weeks . . .