In a decade marked by reality TV and free-for-all social networking, the concept of banning books may seem outdated – even archaic. Sexual explicitness, language that is considered obscene, and homosexuality no longer have the power to shock that they once did. As Banned Books Week 2010 kicks off (Sept. 25−Oct. 2), however, it is clear that for many readers all of the above remain highly objectionable.
Fifty-eight years after its publication, J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” still makes the American Library Association’s list of the top 10 most frequently challenged books of 2009. So do classics “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Color Purple” and “The Chocolate War.”
All four novels are considered, among other reasons, “unsuited to age group” by challengers. In 2001, a school board member in Summerville, S.C., removed “The Catcher in the Rye” because it “is a filthy, filthy book.” Last year it was again challenged at a Missoula, Mont., high school. Also in 2009, secondary school classrooms in Brampton, Ontario, removed “To Kill a Mockingbird” from their shelves after a parent objected to language used in the novel.
Likewise “unsuited” are four young adult reads: No. 1 on the list is Lauren Myracle’s “Internet Girls” series (“ttyl,” “ttfn” and “l8r, g8r”), followed by “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer, and “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Round Things” by Carolyn Mackler.
Challengers deemed Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” ban-able for a plethora of reasons: sexism, homosexuality, sexual explicitness, offensive language, religious viewpoint, drugs, suicide, violence, and of course, for being unsuited for its age group.
A 32-page picture book “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, about a pair of male penguins in a zoo who nurture an egg together, is second on the list. Though not judged unsuited to its age group (4-to-8 years), the book, which was based on a true story, was challenged for its portrayal of homosexuality.
The ALA compiles the top-challenged list every year to educate the public on censorship. (The 2010 list will not be complete till next year.) They define a challenge as “a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” The majority of books challenged do not end up being removed from the library or school.
In total, there were 460 challenges reported to the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom in 2009, 410 of them books. The rest are videos, speeches, magazines, and other forms of media. The organization estimates that only 1 out of every 5 or 6 challenges is actually reported, so the actual number of challenges is probably much larger than 460.
Interestingly, more than half of the challenges for the year came from two states: Pennsylvania and Texas. In the two decades the ALA has been keeping track, parents have been responsible for 48 percent of all challenges. The most common reason: sexual explicitness (33 percent), followed by offensive language (26 percent), and material “unsuited to age group” (21 percent).
While efforts to ban books are decreasing overall – between 2004 and 2009 the ALA received 21 percent fewer reports than a decade before – Banned Books Week highlights that controversies over public access to books and First Amendment rights are alive and well throughout the United States.
Nora Dunne is a Monitor correspondent.