Banned Books Week: What’s the big deal? by Katherine Gerwig (Arndt)

The Big Picture

Intellectual freedom is written into our Constitution. In fact, it is so important to us that it’s in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The expression and dissemination of information and ideas is crucial to a democracy. The skill of thinking critically cannot be acquired without exposure to a spectrum of ideas: old, new, mainstream, divergent, pretty and ugly.

Libraries are filled with ideas and information, so it’s not too surprising they are strong supporters of intellectual freedom. Since 1982 the American Library Association (ALA) has promoted and organized one week in September for the purpose of raising awareness of banned and challenged books in the United States.
Many attempts to censor materials occur in highly localized situations and tend toward censoring materials for children and adolescents. These attempts are exemplified by challenges and bans on books in schools and public libraries or the removal of books from elementary, middle and high school reading lists and programs. Libraries and librarians have fought and continue to fight for the rights of everyone to be able to read and learn from a variety of sources.

Close to Home
This year, Banned Books Week focuses on the genre of graphic novels . My own experience with graphic novels has been quite limited. The only graphic novel I have read is A People’s History of American Empire: a graphic adaptation , which was assigned reading for a library science class. While the graphic novel may not be my personal genre of choice, it is a vital and poignant format for presenting ideas and information, especially alternative concepts.

The unconventional nature of the graphic novel genre has meant that they have been more prone to challenges. For example, in 2013 the Chicago Public school system removed all copies of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi from classrooms and libraries due to concerns over “graphic illustrations and language.” The book was returned to the shelves but it has been removed from the seventh grade reading curriculum.

Closer to Home

Last September, after a challenge from a parents’ group, the Anoka Hennepin School Board in Anoka, Minnesota ordered the district high schools to pull all copies of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell from its shelves (ironically, this action took place during Banned Books Week). The challenge argued that the language was too rough for high school students. After review the school decided to rescind the ban, but not before cancelling Rowell’s speaking engagements with the Anoka-Hennepin School District and Anoka County Public Libraries.

Fortunately, Rainbow Rowell did have a chance to speak in Minnesota, as a part of a panel sponsored by Metropolitan State and the St. Paul Public Library system. The event: “Reading Rainbow Rowell: A Community Forum on Kids’ Right to Read” was well attended and featured a panel moderated by Sasha Aslanian from MPR that included Rowell, as well as a professor of adolescent literature, the president of the Anoka Hennepin Teachers’ Union, the chair of the Minnesota Library Association intellectual freedom committee, and two teens from the Teens Know Best group. Later Rainbow returned to St. Paul as part of the Read Brave citywide reading initiative.

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(Photos courtesy E. Hudman)

In the cases of Persepolis and Eleanor & Park, the final decisions of the school district and high school were less severe than the all-out removal of the texts from the libraries. However, it is important to recognize the pressure that was applied to the decision-making bodies in order to curb the initial censorship of the books.

The Big Deal

In short, Banned Books Week is about raising awareness so that we can continue to read and learn freely. Literature exposes us to situations and cultures we might not otherwise encounter. A good book can make us feel joy, passion, and excitement. Books also provide us with a safe space to experience situations that are scary, hurtful, and sad. It is important that we remember this when thinking about how a specific book might affect a child. If a challenged book is removed from a library or program it may be done with the best interests of the community or group of individuals in mind. However, the decision to retain or remove a title is about much more than what makes a few individuals uncomfortable. The broader interests of the community need to be considered as well.

Interested in reading more about banned graphic novels and comics? Click here to see some of the top “offenders,” compiled by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

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