Banned Books Week – an overview

Every year the American Library Association (hereafter the ALA) and many public, school, and other libraries, call attention to issues of censorship and freedom of information issues with Banned Books Week. And every year since 2005, I have made a series of posts during this week talking about some of these issues in my LiveJournal. This year is no exception (though because I’m extremely busy this week with Pagan Pride preparation, these posts might stretch into next week.)

For folks who don’t know me in this capacity: I’m a librarian who’s worked at a private high school library since the fall of 2000. I started as a paraprofessional, but finished my Master’s in Library/Information Science degree in the summer of 2007, and have since negotiated some greater job responsibilities. I’m fascinated by the issues of access to information.

I’m also a witch and priestess in a small religious witchcraft tradition (Wicca is a close enough approximation until we get into some specific details). Both professionally and personally, I’m particularly interested in how religion plays into challenges to material and access.

What you’ll get:

Today: An overview of issues, plus links to past posts.

Forthcoming (unless someone suggests something that seems even more interesting and useful that I feel I can do something good with.)

  • a discussion of the Sarah Palin book challenge reports (because there’s a bunch of misinformation floating around about this one, and it definitely seems topical) and a general discussion of how political choices seem to be mixing in with this issue.
  • the issue of “might possibly harm someone”
  • context issues (having something available vs. a recommended reading list, vs. assigned reading) plus internal context issues (some books being challenged for depictions in the book of painful things – for example, it’s hard to write a story about someone being bullied without depicting the bullying.)
  • issues with rating system proposals and parental permission.
  • a discussion of issues around challenges based on religion, as well as challenges to material related on occult, esoteric, or other related topics.

General information:

Technically, a better name for it is something like “A week to raise awareness of challenges to material in various kinds of libraries, schools, and other resources.” That’s not nearly so catchy, though.

More usefully, the ALA says “the annual event reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted.” They have an extensive set of links, stats, and other resources available. They also have some interesting statistics (up through 2005) of challenges sorted by type, initiator, and type of institution.

They also publish a volume every few years of specifics of each challenge. Many of these are also discussed in the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, put out by a member group of the ALA.

Some stats:

  • According to the ALA, there were over 400 reported challenges in 2007.
  • Estimates suggest that as many as 85% of challenges are not reported to the ALA – and don’t receive much (or any) media coverage, since many are dealt with on an individual school or library level.
  • These numbers are for books only – they don’t include any other forms of media.

Types of challenges:

These are based on stats from 2000 to 2005 (the most recent update with specific sorting). Anything in quote marks comes directly from the Banned Books: Treasure Your Freedom to Read compilation edited by Robert P. Doyle (this is the 2007 edition of ALA’s Banned Books week flagship publication which lists recent challenges plus some notable historical ones.) I’ve included a couple of examples for each book.

Offensive language is the most common reason for a challenge, with 811 challenges. These challenges include the obvious swearing – but they also include challenges to books about bullying, and to books about historical time periods where particular terms were in common use.

  • Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk has been challenged “because the book uses racial slurs and profanity” – but the book is about bullying, and includes scenes where people are bullied using these terms. (i.e. the book doesn’t show them as being appropriate.)
  • Walter Dean Myer’s Fallen Angels is about soldiers in the Vietnam War. The award winning book has been challenged for offensive language and profanity (things that would seem to be realistic in that setting!)

Sexually explicit books include descriptive or explicit text about sexuality. Sometimes these books are challenged because they frankly discuss teen sexuality (Judy Blume and many others). Sometimes they’re challenged for providing accurate and medically appropriate information about puberty, sexual health, or birth control. This category has 714 challenges.

  • It’s Perfectly Normal: A Book about Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris is an acclaimed book about teenage sexuality issues. It’s also #9 on the 2007 list of most challenged books. A library patron in Maine refused to return it to her library in 2007 because she was “sufficiently horrified by the illustrations and sexually graphic, amoral, abnormal contents”. While she included a check in her letter to pay for the book, the library is pursuing legal action. (Initial story here – there are also updates in January and March 2008.)

Unsuited to age group is a category used for “I don’t want my child to learn about this yet” challenges. Many times, these challenges overlap with the sexually explicit category, or with discussions of homosexuality (and various other things people do) as a normal thing. There were 504 challenges in this category from 2000-2005.

  • And Tango Makes Three (by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell) is based on a true story about two male penguins who adopt an abandoned egg. It was also the #1 challenged book in 2007. A challenge in Missouri claimed it had homosexual undertones” and a committee of teachers and parents at an Illinois elementary school wanted to have it moved to a shelf requiring parental permission.
  • King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijlandhas been challenged because the prince in the fairy tale story rejects a horde of princesses to marry another prince. Some of the challenges have been because “let them be kids… and not worry about homosexuality, race, religion. Just let them live freely as kids.” Which is a nice sentiment, but seems to be missing something.
  • One other good example of this kind of challenge are those challenges to books that talk about menstruation and are aimed at pre-teens. Since many of those 10-11 year olds (and older) have either already gotten their period, or know someone who has, how is the topic age-inappropriate?

Other dominant categories include other (at 583 challenges in the five year period) and violence (405), but I want to take a moment to discuss one more.

Religion and occult: 229 challenges were made in those 5 years because people felt a book encouraged children to explore the occult in some way. (Books in this category include Harry Potter, Wizardology, and The Bartimeus Trilogy. None of which, mind you, are actually accurate depicitions.

Historically, a few books about modern Paganism have also been challenged (this is a topic near and dear my heart, but should probably be a separate post.)

Archives of previous years:

Posts of potential interest that aren’t just retreading stuff I intend to say this year. Please note that how I phrase things or focus things shifts over time (I’m human, I learn, that happens), but I welcome comment on previous entries as long as folks are aware I may not quite go at it from that point of view anymore.


2006: (where I was focusing on some issues of the profession and how they relate to freedom of information access in part because I was finishing my MLIS degree that year.)

  • Some of the challenges of selection and how things can fall through cracks (this post is more what-if and philosophical than many of my posts on this topic.)
  • Professional ethics and other comments on access (following on from previous post in this list)
  • Cataloging issues or barriers to finding books in catalogs.
  • A discussion of how my commitment to freedom of information access more or less manages to live inside the same head as being part of a religious mystery-focused oathbound tradition (where information is not automatically available just by wanting it.) I should do a revamp of this one sometime.


  • Discussion of Chris Crutcher’s work, and some comments on the difficulties of talking about the difficult stuff in life without describing it.
  • (The rest of my posts from this year duplicate other things, and are probably not as worthwhile.)
Bookmark the permalink.