It's Banned Books Week!
This week is Banned Books Week. The annual event, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, takes place during the last week of September. It was first established in 1982 by the American Library Association (ALA), the brainchild of the late, great librarian and activist Judith Krug.
Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read by encouraging people to read books that have been banned or challenged - targeted for banning. The event also promotes the freedom of libraries, schools, and bookstores to provide such materials.
To celebrate Banned Books Week, the ALA offers kits, posters, buttons, bookmarks, and guidelines for schools and public libraries who participate in the event by erecting special displays of banned or challenged books to raise awareness of these issues.
Booksellers also create displays. Some go even further and invite authors of banned or challenged books to speak at their stores. They also sponsor annual essay contests dealing with freedom of expression.
Every year, the ALA compiles a list of the top 100 (or so) books that have been banned or challenged in the United States. What sort of publications make the list? Most of them are children's books that have been challenged or banned outright from schools and libraries across the country.
The challenges and bans are largely the work of disgruntled parents or conservative and / or religious activist groups complaining about allegedly inappropriate content in the literary works.
A good example of this can be found the case of And Tango Makes Three, (2005) a charming picture book for young readers, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.
This book has earned the distinction of being one of the #1 most banned or challenged books. The book is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two captive male penguins living at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.
Zookeepers noticed that for six years, Roy and Silo lived together as mates - as though one of them were female - and engaged in mating rituals. When the penguins were observed trying to hatch an egg-shaped rock, the zookeepers gave them a real penguin egg to see if they could hatch it.
Roy and Silo cared for the egg and successfully hatched it. The healthy female chick, named Tango by the zookeepers, was then adopted by Roy and Silo, who raised her as their own. All three penguins lived together as a family.
And Tango Makes Three caused a furor with conservative and religious groups. Across the country, efforts were made to remove the book from schools and public libraries. Some of these challenges reached the courts, where they all failed.
In one case, a federal court rejected as unconstitutional a local resolution passed in Wichita Falls, Texas, that ordered the public library to remove And Tango Makes Three, along with another similarly themed controversial book (Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman) from the children's section and place them in the restricted adult section of the library.
Here's my own list of the top six books, both modern classics and those from the past, which have been banned or challenged over the years, and still face attempts at censorship:
1. Bridge To Terabithia (1977) by Katherine Paterson. This beloved and acclaimed children's novel, a favorite of both young and old readers alike, (and one of my all time favorites) is still popular over forty years since it was first published. It still appears on teachers' assigned reading lists.
The most banned or challenged children's book of all time, Bridge To Terabithia is set in rural Virginia. It tells the heart wrenching tale of Jess Aarons, a poor, introverted, artistically gifted young farm boy who finds a soul mate in Leslie Burke, the intelligent, imaginative, tomboyish city girl who moves in next door.
Neglected by his ignorant, emotionally distant father, yelled at by his mother, mistreated by his older sisters and annoyed by his younger sisters, saddled with a nasty teacher and picked on by bullies at school, Jess desperately needs a friend. He finds it in Leslie Burke, who also desperately needs a friend.
Together, Jess and Leslie create Terabithia - a magical, imaginary world of their own where they rule as king and queen. When tragedy suddenly strikes and separates them forever, Jess must use all the strength and courage Leslie gave him as he struggles to deal with his grief.
This beautiful novel has been attacked for various reasons, including its themes of death and grief, its bleakness and stark realism, the author's dialectic use of mild profanity, and the alleged ridiculing of authority figures and negative depictions of Christians and Christianity.
2. The Catcher In The Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Salinger's brilliant, celebrated coming-of-age novel about rebellious, angst-ridden troubled teen Holden Caulfield and his journey of self-discovery has been attacked since it was first published.
A staple of study for high school English classes, this novel has been attacked for its frank language, sexual content, alleged promotion of smoking, drinking, lying, and sexual promiscuity, and for other reasons.
When teachers assign their students to read The Catcher In The Rye, they are often challenged by disgruntled parents and conservative groups who try to get the novel removed from school libraries.
3. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain. This classic novel, a sequel to Twain's classic The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, features Tom's friend Huckleberry Finn on an adventure of his own.
Originally attacked for its condemnation of slavery and negative depiction of white Southerners, this book has been attacked since the 1950s by African-American activists for its frequent use of the racial epithet nigger and for its allegedly racist stereotyping of blacks.
Twain scholars point out that when Huckleberry Finn meets runaway slave Jim, Huck is initially opposed to the idea of Jim becoming a free man, but changes his mind after befriending the slave and traveling with him.
Huck sees Jim as a good man who deserves to be free and helps him escape, even though doing so is illegal - it's considered a form of theft. Twain himself despised slavery and used his book to assail it, along with the Southern view that blacks were sub-human. Twain also assailed the Southern practice of lynching.
In using the word nigger, Twain criticizes his fellow Southerners' racism by letting them speak their own ugly language. Modern critics of Huckleberry Finn simply fail to place the novel in its proper historical context.
4. The Harry Potter Series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. Scottish author J.K. Rowling created a pop culture phenomenon with her series of seven fantasy novels about a young English orphan boy named Harry Potter who learns that he is a wizard.
Rescued from his nasty muggle (non-magical) relatives by the giant Hagrid, Harry is whisked away into the hidden world of wizards and witches and enrolled at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry will learn to master his magic (with the guidance of his mentor, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore) and meet his ultimate destiny - to face and destroy Lord Voldemort, the evil dark wizard who murdered his parents - as the forces of good and evil in the magical world prepare for war.
Rowling's epic novels inspired millions of children to put down their video game controllers and discover the joy of reading. She also earned millions of adult fans as well - and the wrath of religious conservatives.
These people claim that the Harry Potter novels encourage children to dabble in witchcraft and Satanism - despite the fact that magic is depicted as a gift one is born with and not related to a religion.
Nevertheless, the books have been challenged frequently, especially in the conservative Southern states, where attempts have been made to remove the books from teachers' assigned reading lists and school libraries.
Though victorious against those who would censor her books, J.K. Rowling torpedoed her career in December of 2019 by publicly defending a British woman who was fired by her employers for making hateful comments about transgender people.
In the resulting firestorm of controversy, instead of apologizing, Rowling doubled down, exposing herself as a TERF - a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist - and stating that trans women aren't women and represent a threat to the rights of women.
She also repeated the hateful false claim that male sexual predators pass themselves off as trans women in order to prey on women in public bathrooms. Rowling was stripped of her Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award, and rightfully so.
5. The His Dark Materials Trilogy (1995-2000) by Sir Philip Pullman. English author Sir Philip Pullman's brilliant epic fantasy trilogy is set in an alternate universe, on a world similar to Earth, in a country similar to Victorian England.
In this world, everyone has a daemon - an externalization of the soul that takes the form of a shape-shifting creature (and dear friend) that always remains by their side.
The heroine is a bright, brash, imaginative, and mischievous 12-year-old girl named Lyra Belacqua whose daemon is called Pantalaimon. Lyra is an orphan who lives with her uncle, Lord Asriel, at Oxford University.
When Lord Asriel makes an important discovery - the true nature of Dust, the fabric of the universe - that threatens to invalidate the cruel, oppressive, Christian-esque religion whose Catholic Church-like clerical body (the Magisterium) rules the world with iron fists, his life is endangered.
Lyra finds herself at the center of a prophecy. She is the chosen one who will not only bring down the Magisterium on her world, but bring about a revolution in Heaven as well.
The being worshiped as God is actually not a benevolent god but an evil, dictatorial angel called Metatron who seized power over Heaven and the universe from The Authority - the first angel to emerge from the Dust.
In The Subtle Knife, the second book in the trilogy, Lyra meets Will Parry, a boy her age from another universe and world (ours) who becomes her first love and partner in the prophecy, which is a reversal of John Milton's Paradise Lost, from which the trilogy got its name.
Lyra and Will become the new Adam and Eve, but instead of causing the fall of Man with their sin of fornication, they cause the fall of Metatron (God) and save Man. Where the Harry Potter novels invoked the wrath of religious conservatives over witchcraft, the His Dark Materials trilogy made them go ballistic.
They accused author Philip Pullman of blasphemy, anti-Catholicism, and promoting atheism to children. Others complained about the books' violence, gore, sexual content, and the promotion of a heroine who is disobedient by nature and an accomplished liar.
The most (allegedly) objectionable elements of the story occur near the end. Lyra and Will free the aged, dying Authority from confinement so he can die peacefully and return to the Dust. Although an act of mercy, conservative critics see this as the symbolic killing of God.
In order to fulfill the prophecy, Will and Lyra make love. The sex scene is tastefully handled, as is the first awakening of sexual feelings within Lyra. Though Pullman's American publisher, Scholastic, Inc., censored some passages in the U.S. version of the third book, The Amber Spyglass, the entire trilogy of novels still faces challenges and bans in the U.S.
6. I Am Jazz (2014) by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel. The most recent addition to my list is a picture book for young children written by transgender activist Jazz Jennings, who has been in the public eye since the age of six, when she was interviewed by TV legend Barbara Walters.
The interview segment, part of an episode of Walters' classic TV news magazine 20/20, dealt with the often violent bigotry and ugly discrimination that transgender children and their families still face today. An acclaimed feature length documentary on Jennings, I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition, aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network four years later.
In 2014, at the age of 14, Jennings wrote I Am Jazz, a picture book about herself, for three reasons: to help transgender children accept themselves, to help the families of transgender children accept them, and to encourage tolerance of transgender children by others.
An acclaimed and popular book, it still raises the ire of angry, ignorant, bigoted conservative Christian and other right wing pressure groups, who try to get it removed from school and public libraries.
Jazz Jennings would go on to star in a popular reality TV series, also called I Am Jazz, which has run for seven seasons on the TLC cable channel, with the seventh season premiering last November. Her most recent book, a memoir called Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen, was published in 2016.
Thanks to the ALA's Banned Books Week, more and more people have become aware of these attempts at censoring books in the United States and around the world, and the threat they pose to the individual's freedom to read what he wants and the freedom of libraries and bookstores to provide him with the material.
The human rights organization Amnesty International joins the ALA in celebrating Banned Books Week by bringing attention to the plight of those around the world who are persecuted for what they write, publish, distribute, and read.
In 2021, during this time of intense political polarization in America, there were more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals, with a disturbing number of school and public librarians voluntarily removing books from their shelves. Most of the books targeted were written by black or LGBT+ authors and / or dealt with black or LGBT+ subject matter.
Exercise your freedom to read by celebrating Banned Books Week. For more information, visit the American Library Association's web site.
Quote Of The Day
"Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings." - Heinrich Heine
Today's video features a presentation on this year's Banned Books Week. Enjoy!