What Gets a Book “Banned”?

In my post on Tuesday, I included a brief survey of the ALA’s “Top Ten Banned Books for 2010.”  Let’s take a closer look at that list, just to see what kinds of books are “banned” and what might be the problem with them.  Counting up from the bottom, they are

10. Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer.  As everybody who wasn’t raised by aborigines in the outback knows, this is the first volume of Meyer’s “vegetarian vampire” series, which isn’t great literature but isn’t especially lurid either.  Since the ALA doesn’t supply analytics with their lists, it’s hard to say why Twilight makes it into the top ten at all, except for its high profile.

9.  Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie.  Described by Amazon.com as a “groundbreaking, multicultural collection of stories by the queer and young [that] should be required reading for every jaded adult–teachers, parents, politicians–and anyone who fears for the future of our country.”  Okay, I get it.

8.  Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich.  This is a non-fiction book for adults describing Ms. Ehrenreich’s experience working at a number of minimum-wage jobs—adding up to a critique of the free-enterprise system.  I didn’t read the book but I read several reviews, and the main objection is that the author’s progressive slant paints an inaccurate picture of capitalism: all the warts, none of the benefits.  I can’t imagine it being challenged in a public library; the problem must have been requiring high school students to read it with no opposing literature.

7.  What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones.  Again from Amazon: “With her frank manner, lusty thoughts, and hidden insecurities, Sophie reflects many teenage girls, past and present. No woman will be able to read this heartfelt verse novel and not find a bit of herself in Sophie’s secret, sexy thoughts.”  My guess is that parents found this on a school reading list and would prefer that Sophie keep her secret sexy thoughts to herself.

6.  Lush, by Natasha Friend.  This one might be worth a look.  Thirteen-year-old Samantha is dealing with a difficult father: a great guy when sober but irrational and violent when drunk, which he is too often.  Desperate for a friend to confide in, Sam writes a note and leaves it in a library book, leading (rather improbably) to a correspondence between her and an unknown confidant who helps her work through her problem.  It sounds very similar to many YA and even Middle-grate novels, so I don’t know why it was challenged.

5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.  No bad language or sex, just unrelenting violence, some of it fairly disturbing.  The whole idea of two dozen teenagers fighting to the death for the amusement of a jaded nation is disturbing, but since it takes place in some unknown future, The Hunger Games probably serves as escapist literature for most teens.  No better or worse than many dystopian fantasies, but like Twilight, a high profile makes it a ready target.

4.  Crank, by Ellen Hopkins.  Hopkins might best be described as a writer of modern cautionary tales.  Most of her one-word-titled verse novels explore some aspect of the underside of American culture: Tricks (teen prostitution), Impulse (suicide), Burned (family violence), and Identical (sexual abuse).  Crank is the story of a 17-year-old girl, modeled on Hopkins’ own daughter, who becomes addicted to crystal meth.  Her problems are not resolved by the end of the book; in fact, Crank is only the first of a trilogy.  By the choice of a gritty subject and unblinking honesty, the author obviously hopes to warn young people away from a similar path, but many readers are only going to be depressed by it.

3.  Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.  We read this in high school—what’s the problem?  To the best I can find out, it seems to be what some readers regard as an unsympathetic portrait of native Americans (remember John the Savage?).  The novel was published in 1932, before Huxley or anyone else realized that “savage” was an insensitive word—the book was banned then (really banned), in some places, for its anti-religious and negative tone.

2.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.  Speaking of native Americans . . . Alexie is a full-blood of the Spokane tribe, who made a name as a poet, screenwriter, essayist and fiction writer.  The Absolutely True Diary is the semi-autobiographical story of a teen boy’s escape from the reservation into something resembling a future: a journey riddled with alcoholism, hopelessness, and relatives who die too young.  Challenged for language and sexual content.

1.  And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson: a picture book based on the true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who developed enough maternal instinct between them to try to hatch a rock.  A zoo attendant substituted an abandoned egg for the rock, leading to a sweet little non-traditional penguin family.  The obvious objection is that Tango incorporates pastel colors, soothing text, and adorable animals to make homosexuality seem normal to little children, long before they can even understand what homosexuality is.

This year’s list is a mix of the trendy, the radical, the hot, and the classic.  Some are objectionable for their subject matter and others for the way the subject matter is decked out (e.g., graphic depictions, foul language).  Some are targeted for their high popularity and others, it would seem, almost out of habit (another school year; another slap at Brave New World).

The banned books for 2010, and for previous years, are by no means the worst of the genres they represent; others are far more explicit and yet never get challenged.  But when you think about it, almost every book you could imagine has something for somebody to object to, even the milquetoast-y Dick and Jane (gender stereotypes; white bias).

After the furor over Meghan Cox Gurdon’s column, several YA authors defended their writing by an appeal to the “power” of books and the ideas expressed in them, leaving the impression that that power was only for good, never harm.  What could be harmful about ideas?  Well . . . Marx had a few that eventually proved fatal to millions.  Darwin planted some ideas that seemed to promise freedom but actually left no objective basis for valuing humanity.  Genre novels have glorified violence; romance novels have idolized sexual attraction; satires and farces have supported the idea that cool people take nothing too seriously.  Very, very few of these books have actually been banned.  The vast majority are floating free in the cultural swamp where anyone can pick them up and skim a few pages and find them to his taste, or not.

But what would you guess is the most banned book of all time?  I mean really banned: censored and censured, thrown out of libraries and suitcases and even homes, so potent that owners have been jailed, tortured, and worse for having a copy in their possession.  It’s the Bible, of course.  And for good reason: it’s dynamite.  No one will “challenge” it without being challenged by it.  It has altered societies and knocked down strongholds and launched revolutions.  This book really will change your life, because it points to the one Being, as Emily pointed out yesterday, who can really save.

COMMENTS

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8 Responses to What Gets a Book “Banned”?

  1. emily September 26, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Hey, thanks, Sherry. We appreciated your comments on the subject, too. http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=1537

  2. emily September 26, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Hey, thanks, Sherry. We appreciated your comments on the subject, too. http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=1537

  3. Betsy September 26, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    There are other reasons given on the ALA page for why some of these books get banned and, sadly, those reasons show that both the people challenging the books as well as the librarians who give in to the requests are not reading the books in question. For instance, “racism” is given as a reason against Part-Time Indian. Well, the book is making a profound statement about racism… it’s part of the point of the book. I don’t get how that is the reason for banning it. Of course people tried to ban Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for similar reasons. Sometimes people reading these books (or hearing about them) aren’t reading very critically. I take all banned books lists with a big grain of salt these days. And, before you challenge a book, READ IT. Don’t merely react to hearsay.

  4. Betsy September 26, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    There are other reasons given on the ALA page for why some of these books get banned and, sadly, those reasons show that both the people challenging the books as well as the librarians who give in to the requests are not reading the books in question. For instance, “racism” is given as a reason against Part-Time Indian. Well, the book is making a profound statement about racism… it’s part of the point of the book. I don’t get how that is the reason for banning it. Of course people tried to ban Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for similar reasons. Sometimes people reading these books (or hearing about them) aren’t reading very critically. I take all banned books lists with a big grain of salt these days. And, before you challenge a book, READ IT. Don’t merely react to hearsay.

  5. Sherry September 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Thank you, Janie and Emily for all the good information and thought you’ve put into this series on Banned Book Week so far.

  6. Sherry September 25, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Thank you, Janie and Emily for all the good information and thought you’ve put into this series on Banned Book Week so far.

  7. emily September 23, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    This is such a helpful post, Janie. It may need to be a yearly feature.

  8. emily September 23, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    This is such a helpful post, Janie. It may need to be a yearly feature.

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