2013 has seen a drastic rise in requests to ban books – especially those about race or sexuality — from schools. The Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP), which is part of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), says that, in the past year, it has investigated 49 book bannings or removals of books from shelves in 29 states, a 53 percent increase from the year before.
Just in the last half of 2013, the KRRP responded to 31 incidents as compared to 14 in the same period in 2012. In November alone, there were three times the average number of incidents. As many such complaints go unreported, it’s very likely that there are even more.
The KRRP is supported by the Association of American Publishers and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. It is also part of a collaborative effort to fight the “growing trend to rate and label” not only books but also movies and video games.
A “Pattern“ to Ban Books From Schools and Libraries?
Parents of students, library patrons and local or state officials were behind complaints about books addressing issues of race, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Books discussing LGBTQ issues were also challenged: Two parents in Leesburg, Fla., filed a petition to remove The Bermudez Triangle from the public library on the grounds that it contains homosexual content. In West Bend, Wis., the Library Advisory Board was accused of “promoting the overt indoctrination of the gay agenda” after it resisted pressure to remove certain titles. The Litchfield, N.H., school board removed four stories including David Sedaris’ “I Like Guys” from an elective upperclassmen English course after parents objected.
As the KRRP’s Acacia O’Connor comments:
Whether or not patterns like this are the result of co-ordination between would-be censors across the country is impossible to say. But there are moments, when a half-dozen or so challenges regarding race or LGBT content hit within a couple weeks, where you just have to ask “what is going on out there?”
In a year in which the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional and which witnessed the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the increase in requests for the removal of books that address topics of sexuality and race stands out. O’Connor in fact describes the past year as a “a sprint” during which, after the KRRP settled one complaint, its staff would “wake up the next morning to find out another book was on the chopping block.”
Censorship of books about race and LGBTQ issues “affects everyone,” the NCAC underscores. In the case of the latter, the NCAC emphasizes that ”young people who are questioning their sexuality, kids with gay or lesbian parents, adults who visit public libraries, and anyone who has met or is likely to meet an LGBTQ person also have the right to read stories that don’t come from a ‘straight’ standpoint.”
The Censors Have By No Means Won
Lest it seem that those who seek to restrict what students read are gaining the upper hand, 2013 was also a year in which the KRRP scored a number of successes. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima was returned to English classrooms in Driggs, Idaho. A ban on Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits at Watauga County Schools in Boone, N.C., was reversed. After Neil Gaiman’s urban fantasy novel Neverwhere was banned in Alamogordo, N.M., due to only one complaint by a parent, the school board ruled that the book must be returned to school bookshelves. The KKRP also reversed a proposed ban of The Diary of Anne Frank from schools in Northville, Mich., after one parent complained that passages in which the author describes her own body were “pornographic.”
Calls to remove books from shelves have often stemmed from inflated concerns about specific passages in books. The “pornographic” passages in Frank’s diary are, the NCAC observes, “no more pornographic than a conversation with one’s gynecologist or a health-ed class.”
The book that the KRRP and the NCAC found themselves called the most to defend (specifically, in Montana, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia) was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, on the grounds that it is “anti-Christian.” In light of the numerous calls to ban his book, Alexie summed up why it is necessary to fight such calls to limit what books students encounter in public school classrooms and libraries. Censors, he says, are “punishing the imagination” and, in the process, potentially stoking even more interest in “dangerous” books.
As Alexie commented earlier this year when asked how it feels to be the author of a banned book, it means “that I wrote a great book. I wrote the book that needs to be read.”
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