From 2000 to 2009, 8 out of the top 10 books on "The Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books" were specifically written for teens or children. In fact out of that list of 100, 67 were books for teens or children. Titles such as the Harry Potter series (#1), the Alice series (#2), The Chocolate War (#3), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (#10), Captain Underpants series (#13) and the His Dark Materials series (#8). All these titles and more were considered too dangerous and too inappropriate to be read by those they were intended for.
What does banned or challenged mean? It means that somewhere in America a parent, teacher, school administrator or concerned citizen finds a book offensive (for whatever reason) and fights to have that book removed from libraries or classrooms and sometimes they succeed. Such challenges completely ignore the books' literary value, their social value and emotional impact as well as their entertainment value.
The American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom keeps track of these bannings and challenges in their fight against censorship. Every year they bring attention to it with Banned Books Week—when they celebrate the right to read. The right to read and explore ideas comes from the First Amendment of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The underlying principle being that even if you don't like what something says or the way it is said you can't prohibit it being said (or read). In other words, you don't like it? Fine, don't read it and don't let your child read it but don't keep everyone else from being exposed to it as well. Censorship was actively practiced in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and continues to be practiced in oppressive regimes around the world today.
Who knew that in the 21st century, reading a book could be an act of rebellion?
It's not just children's and teen books written in the last twenty years that get challenged but classics of literature as well. Staples of every high school required reading list are on the Top 100 Banned and/or Challenged Novels of the 20th Century. If I'd known how inappropriate these books were I might have made more of an effort to read more of them when I was a teenager. The Catcher in the Rye (#2) by J.D Salinger has a horrible record. It has been banned or challenged in every corner of the country—mainly for "profanity," being "obscene," "immoral" and in one instance "negative activity"(?)—that Holden Caufield he's such a Debbie Downer! The beloved To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been challenged for being "filthy and trashy", the use of "racial slurs" and in one Texas town for "conflicting with the values of the community"—so Atticus standing up for what he believes in is a bad thing? John Steinbeck has two heavily banned and challenged books: The Grapes of Wrath (#3) and Of Mice and Men (#12). Grapes… has been banned for being "profane," "subversive," "vulgar" and "anti-Christian." With Mice… people have objected to its use of "vulgar language," "racial slurs," "taking the Lord's name in vain," "indecency," "sexual overtones" and being "unpatriotic." And I here I thought they were kinda boring. My bad! Other classics on the list include: The Great Gatsby (#1), Animal Farm (#17), The Color Purple (#5), The Lord of the Flies (#8), A Separate Peace (#67), Gone with the Wind (#26) and The Call of the Wild (#33).
Every year more banning and/or challenge fights are reported to the ALA but the ALA estimates that 85% of all of these fights go unreported. In other words, the books are just quietly taken off the shelf or reading list and no one notices or cares. Here are just some of the books that were banned and/or challenged during the 2012-2013 school year (all quoted material taken from the ALA's "Books Challenged or Banned 2012-2013" report):
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
A contemporary teen novel about a troubled Native American teenager who attends a mostly white high school and plays basketball. It was challenged in 2012 at the Westfield, NJ high school for "explicit sexual references, encouraging pornography, racism, religious irreverence and strong language."
Feed by M.T. Anderson
An award winning, thought provoking teen sci-fi novel about the breakdown of society through consumerism and technology run amok. Challenged in 2012 at a Virginia high school for being "trash" and "covered in the F-word."
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
A young adult classic that has been constantly challenged since it was first published in 1999, is a coming of age novel about a shy teen who comes out of his shell thanks to new friends and new experiences. Challenged as a reading assignment in 2012, at a high school in Ohio, for dealing with "drugs, alcohol, sex, homosexuality and abuse."
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti
A contemporary love story, told in alternating p.o.v.'s of the main characters, about first love, a first real relationship and the first time. Challenged in 2013 in Illinois for "explicit content."
Enders Game by Orson Scott Card
A teen science fiction classic about a child prodigy being trained to fight aliens. In 2012, a middle school teacher in South Carolina was faced with complaints and possible criminal charges for readings excerpts from the book aloud to his students. The excerpts were considered to be "pornographic" by one student and one parent.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
A contemporary teen novel about love and loss at a boarding school, it won the 2006 Printz award for excellence in young adult literature. In 2012, it was banned from the Sumner County, Tennessee schools required reading list for "inappropriate language."
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Set in Afghanistan, it is a beautifully written novel about friendship and triumph over tragedy. In 2012, it was challenged as optional reading for a 10th grade honors class in Troy, Pennsylvania because of its graphic depiction of rape and the use of "vulgar language."
Totally Joe by James Howe
A charming story of a 13-year-old boy talking about the issues in his life: friends, family, school and being openly gay. It was marked for removal from the Davis, Utah school district in 2012 because parents "might find it objectionable."
Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
This teen novel is a realistic and haunting portrayal of soldiers during the Vietnam War. A part of a middle school's reading list in Toledo, it was challenged because of the "inappropriate language" used by the soldiers and its "graphic depictions of combat."
A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
A popular memoir about a man who survived extreme child abuse, in 2013 it was challenged at a middle school in Washington State for its graphic depictions of child abuse. Students must now have parental permission to check out the book from the library.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
An award-winning graphic novel-memoir about growing up in an oppressive Iran during the Iranian Revolution. In 2013 it was removed from all Chicago middle schools and high schools, via district directive, due to "graphic illustrations and language" and concerns about "developmental preparedness" and "student readiness." Seventh through 12th grade students use the book as part of the school system's literacy and human rights curriculums. It was eventually restored to schools but only after students staged protests, went on radio and TV and wrote articles for local newspapers. Even they could see the irony of banning a book which was all about fighting oppression. For more info on this fight check out the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website.
The right to read extends to teens and children as well as adults. Stand up for the right to choose your own reading materials and respect the rights of others to do the same. Stand up against censorship in all its forms. As the ALA writes in their official 2013 booklet,
"When we speak up to protect the right to read, we not only defend our individual right to free expression, we demonstrate tolerance and respect for opposing points of view. And when we take action to preserve our precious freedoms, we become participants in the ongoing evolution of our democratic society." (p.9)
For more information, downloads, lists and booklets on banned and challenged books and Banned Books Week please visit the American Library Association website for Intellectual Freedom and the Official Banned Books website.