Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It is sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and is typically held during the last week of September. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to our Constitution is the basis for the ALA’s Freedom of Information and Freedom to Read statements. According to the ALA, intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. Libraries provide the ideas and information, in a variety of formats, to allow people to inform themselves and to self-govern themselves with regard to what information they seek.
Banned Books Week is an opportunity for libraries, bookstores, publishers, writers, teachers, and readers to highlight the value of free and open access to information, and the freedom to seek and express ideas. Some of those ideas and topics are sometimes considered unorthodox, unpopular, or offensive to some people, and as a result book titles may be challenged and/or banned within a library or school. Censors pressure libraries to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so the rest of the community no longer has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it.
Since 1990, the American Library Association for Intellectual Freedom has published an annual list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books using information from censorship reports and public challenges reported in the media.
In 2016, there were 323 reported challenges nationwide, of which about 10% were removed from the shelves of the classroom, library, or bookstore. In 2016, challenges were evenly split between schools and public libraries and most challenges were made by parents (42%) or library patrons (31%). Books may be challenged for more than one reason, as were most of the titles on last year’s list. Of the ten titles, eight were challenged for being sexually explicit or having sexual content, five were challenged for containing LGBT characters, four were challenged for offensive or profane language, two were challenged for having offensive political viewpoints, one was challenged for drug use, and one was challenged due to criminal sexual allegations against the author.
Last year’s challenged books included two titles for adults (Big Hard Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction; Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk), four titles for young adults (This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki; Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan; Looking for Alaska by John Green; Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell), two books for middle grade readers (Drama by Raina Telgemeier; George by Alex Gino), a series of books for early readers (Little Bill by Bill Cosby), and a picture book for young children (I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel).
Our public libraries have policies and procedures in place regarding the freedom to read, the freedom to view, and how we go about purchasing books, accepting book donations, and discarding books that are no longer circulating. We also have policies in place regarding the procedure for challenging a book – generally this requires a person outline their objection in writing and submit it to the individual library for review.
With regards to books and young readers, it is always the responsibility of the parent or caregiver to help children choose and check out age-appropriate books and materials. Children’s reading abilities and maturity levels vary greatly from one individual to the next, and libraries make an effort to group materials as such within the library. We usually separate picture books from early readers and chapter books. Many libraries have tween, teen, or young adult sections that allow for books and materials containing potentially sensitive content to be shelved in different areas based on reading and maturity levels.
In St. Lawrence County, our public libraries have nine of the ten books on last year’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books list. For anyone wishing to read a specific book, the titles and owning libraries may be found in the North Country Library System’s online catalog, or by inquiring at your local public library. Our libraries also have most of the books from previous lists, many of which are considered classic novels or contemporary bestsellers. Be sure to stop by your local public library and check out what we have to read!