This year, Banned Books Week runs from 22nd to 28th September. Founded in 1982 and sponsored by the American Library Association, the campaign celebrates open access to information and aims to raise awareness of intellectual freedom.
There are several lists of frequently challenged books on the ALA website from historical bans on books now regarded as classics to more recent restrictions in the 21st century. The majority of the list of banned classics didn’t surprise me, especially if you consider the political or social context in which these books were published and how offensive their content might be to certain groups of people. For example, it is well-known that ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence was banned in a number of countries several decades ago. Other notable challenged classics include ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.
However, banning books isn’t just something that happened in the past. Books continue to be removed either temporarily or permanently from schools and libraries today and many recently published books have stirred up a lot of controversy. The banned book which has baffled me the most is probably ‘James and the Giant Peach‘ by Roald Dahl which was challenged in a town in Wisconsin and a school in Florida in the 1990s. It has been many years since I have read it but I could not think of any aspect of the story which would lead to it being banned. Apparently, it is because it contains mystical elements, sexual inferences, racism, profanity, promotes disobedience and communism and contains references to drugs and alcohol. I don’t think I picked up on any of these things at the age of seven and I doubt most other children would either.
I am unaware of any recent and widespread restrictions on books in schools and libraries in the UK on the grounds of obscenity. Although a church school in the UK banned the Harry Potter books in 2000, I would be surprised if that restriction is still in force today. However, while banning or challenging books in the UK is an extremely rare event, it is still quite common in the United States. The list of challenged books in 2012-2013 features ‘The Perks of Being A Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky, ‘Fight Club’ by Chuck Palaniuk, ‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J. D. Salinger and a number of other books widely regarded as established classics. It is likely that many other challenges have not been reported at all.
While many challenged books are eventually retained, censorship is definitely not a thing of the past even in Western countries today and that is why Banned Books Week is so important. Objections to certain books are frequently made on the grounds that children need to be protected from their content. However, it is clear that these restrictions are limiting the freedom of choice of large numbers of young people in particular who should be allowed to develop their own opinions.
My sister brought back a Banned Books bag from the United States for me earlier this year. I will definitely be using it when I go out this week.
Are you reading any banned books at the moment? Which books have been banned for the oddest reasons?