Human Rights

America's Book Banners Are Back in Force

"Groups are organizing around the principle that professional librarians don’t have the expertise, that they’re pushing porn on our kids."

On the website Parents Against Bad Books In Schools, some of the works deemed “sensitive, inappropriate and controversial” for K-12 students, even those who are college-bound or in advanced placement classes, include Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

“Bad is not for us to determine,” says the disclaimer on the site. “Bad is what you determine is bad.” One of the purposes of PABBIS.org, the disclaimer goes on to say, is to “provide information related to bad books in schools.”

Of course, “bad” is a relative term, and one person’s obscenity is another person’s Pulitzer or Nobel Prize winner. Yet websites like PABBIS.org and Safelibraries.org have become the vanguard for a recent increase in organized attempts to ban books from public libraries and school curricula.

“There are organized groups on the internet whose purpose is to remove books from libraries because they believe they may be inappropriate for children,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. “Traditionally, when books are challenged, it’s usually a single parent. But we have found that groups are organizing around the principle that professional librarians don’t have the expertise, that they’re pushing porn on our kids.”

“Groups of parents are getting together and organizing in their communities to ban books,” adds Joan Bertin of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “I think what’s happening is once a book is challenged in one town, people on the same wavelength, it will flag that book for them. For example, we’ve seen three challenges to Sherman Alexie’s teen novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, all within the past three months, two in Missouri, one in Montana.”

Some other recent incidents:

• Self-identified members of the 9.12 Project, a conservative watchdog group launched by Glenn Beck, succeeded in removing Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology from a high school library in Burlington County, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb.

• A fight over library books featuring sex and homosexuality inflamed the town of West Bend, Wis., north of Milwaukee, and led four men to threaten to publicly burn Baby Be-Bop, a novel about a gay teenager.

• In Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa, parents objected to the inclusion of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors on the suggested reading list of an English AP course. Out of nine high schools, two banned the book outright, and the other seven either required parental consent to read it or placed a “Mature Reader” label on the front cover.

“Books written for an adult audience are not frequently challenged,” says the ALA’s Caldwell-Stone. “The vast majority that are challenged are written for young people or provided to young people as part of an AP class. [Grounds include] profanity, sexually explicit, simply talking about having sex, or homosexuality. Books have been challenged simply because they had a homosexual character, and there was no sex in them. Unsuited to age group is a big complaint.”

“We have always seen a lot of challenges around sex,” Bertin adds. “Of course, gay and lesbian sex is even a hotter topic. Teenage sex is a big thing. And the sex issue ties in with religion, which goes by the code name of family values -- these are not the values we want to teach our children, we don’t want them to know about casual sexual activity.”

This is not to say that some of the most challenged perennials -- Huckleberry Finn (long a favorite target of the left, which might be placated by a little Bowdlerization …), Beloved, the Harry Potter books -- aren’t still fighting off the censors.

But there has been a sea change in what kinds of books are being attacked, and the ways in which those challenges are handled. Whereas a decade ago, evangelicals seemed to concentrate on removing books about witchcraft and secular humanism from libraries, now the emphasis is definitely on sex, particularly of the homosexual variety. (Although there are always outliers, like BowlderizingThe Cartoons That Shook the World because of panels showing the Prophet Mohammed, or keeping minors from seeing Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on the working poor, Nickel and Dimed, off the shelves because of anti-Christian themes) And the book banners seem to be concentrating on award-winning literature taught in advanced high school classes.

“The fact people say AP high school students shouldn’t be reading Beloved, or Bookseller of Kabul, what I fear this indicates is that these are people who believe no one should be reading these books,” Bertin says. “In their view, these books are the product of a corrupt and immoral society, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

There is, of course, a fine line being danced around here. What’s appropriate for one student might not be for another of the same age. Librarians, teachers and parents can help make these determinations, but, Caldwell-Stone says, “it shouldn’t be one parent deciding what’s appropriate for every 12-year-old. This is a pluralistic society, not everyone shares the same values, and publicly funded schools and libraries have to serve the public.”

Caldwell-Stone says about 25 percent of all challenges are successful, and that challenges often occur without being mentioned in the press because many librarians are afraid of losing their jobs and hesitate to report what’s happening.

The number of known challenges has remained relatively constant. The ALA says they’ve had as many as 700 in a given year, and as few as 380. The numbers generally come out in the 400-500 range (there were 460 challenges in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available). So the problem is not that there’s a major uptick in complaints, it’s that the challengers are starting to organize.

In that sense, they’ve taken a page from the opposition -- the annual Banned Books Week was first organized in 1982 to highlight the issue, and it’s currently sponsored by organizations like the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores.

“We never have a problem with people who don’t want their own kid to read a book,” Bertin says. “We have a problem with people who feel these books are corrosive to the culture, and they don’t want them taught in schools. They think it’s immoral and offends their religious values, whether they’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim.”

Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.
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