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Guest blog post by Gene Policinski

The words “banned” and “books” ought never be necessary in the same sentence.

Even when used in the benign way of “Banned Books Week,” an annual event that this year runs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2. Come to think of it, even that yearly title should not be in our vocabulary.

Much better to have just “Books Week,” don’t you think? Better sound to it, and a better idea behind it – except that we still will face the affront to the First Amendment’s concept of a “marketplace of ideas” from those who would hide from facts rather than face up to them.

Opposition is vocal today – and sometimes menacing – to the exposure to ideas some would not see: Too negative, too hateful, too shocking, too offensive, or just too critical of our past or our present. Those voices who would silence authors, and in doing so blind readers, declare multiple justifications: Patriotism, morality – as they see it – and even safety.

If only the issue of banning books was a subject unto itself. But in 2021 it’s not. Banning books in a local library or school system comes amid a time when “cancel culture” is on the rise, from electronic shunning via social media of people for supposed transgressions of the strict application of “political correctness” to physical intimidation at school board and town hall meetings with claims of “protecting the children” from issues that, in reality and in all too short a time, they will have to confront as adults.

Silence the speaker, the author, the social influencer and “poof,” problem solved – so the theory goes if advocates from both the left and right were to be honest with themselves. But taking a shortcut through the First Amendment by banning books – and the discussions and disruptions that come with reading them – is much quicker than dealing frankly and effectively with challenges such as the legacy of racism and prevalence of hate, with the debilitating effects of long-term poverty and the corrupting decay of discrimination.

This instinct to censor that which upsets us is not new. In what is believed to be the first ban on a book in what would become the United States, Puritan officials in Massachusetts banned a “tell-all” book critical of their new colony’s practices, “New English Canaan” – which contained serious criticisms that the Puritan ethic would lead to a nation little more than a “Christian labor camp”. The book also ridiculed the Puritan’s lack of learning, their gloomy approach to life, and even called Myles Standish and his men “Captain Shrimp and the nine worthies.” Pretty heady stuff for the middle-1600s, we can assume.

The issue of banning books was debated some 40 years ago on a higher plain, in the U.S. Supreme Court, in Island Trees School District (New York state) v. Pico – with a fractured court voting in 1982 to void a decision by the local school board to ban books by several notable authors.

The controversy and the decision covered ground all too familiar today. School board members, after attending a meeting sponsored by a conservative parents’ groups, banned nine books they found were available in high school and middle school libraries, as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy.” The board later told a district court that “[i]t is our duty, our moral obligation, to protect the children in our schools from this moral danger as surely as from physical and medical dangers” – even after a committee created by the board advised reinstating the books with appropriate age and curriculum conditions.

“Pico” is notable as the first time the Supreme Court ruled against banning books from libraries, though the decision acknowledged school board authority over classroom materials. Perhaps the greatest point of agreement among the justices was that no one has the power to ban a book because of its content – be that political view, sexual imagery, or controversial subject. And, as one justice wrote in a concurring opinion, the First Amendment protects not only the right to express ideas, but also the right to receive them.

To be sure, no court decision requires anyone to read a book or prevents anyone from criticizing its use in schools – or it’s very value. But, as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote in the 1940s, we ought to be exposed to ideas we find even repellent and repugnant, if only to be better prepared to argue against them.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported for this year’s Banned Books Week there were 156 challenges in 2020 to library, school, and university materials and services in 2020, with 273 books targeted. [Top 10 Most Challenged Books Lists | Advocacy, Legislation & Issues (ala.org)].

Most often cited by opponents: Accounts of LGBTQIA lives, a focus on racial discrimination, profanity, depictions of alcoholism or “anti-police” views. Among those most challenged: “Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck; and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee – to my view, certainly literary classics, but hardly the cutting edge of a rampant modern-day agenda to brainwash unsuspecting citizens.

Banning a book – or a thought – has never solved any problem or corrected any ill. But reading a book that leads to a thought has.

Gene Policinski is a member of the board of trustees and board secretary of the First Amendment Museum and frequently writes on issues involving the First Amendment.


Related

Banned Books Week 2021: Young Adult Books

We consider seven examples of young adult books that have been banned throughout the United States, starting with the Twilight series. Read more.

Banned Books One on 1

Join Maine author Spencer Stephens as he talks to us about censorship, banning books, and how to use your First Amendment rights every day.

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As part of Banned Books Week 2021, which ran this year from September 26th through October 2nd, the First Amendment Museum (FAM) considered examples of young adult books that have been banned throughout the United States. This coincided with our September 27th virtual program for teenagers, “You Can’t Read That! Banned Books and Censorship for Teens.”

It is through the controversies and debates surrounding these books that the nature of censorship itself, especially in a country with such strong protections on the freedom of expression through the First Amendment, will be explored. 

Learn more about how books get banned in the United States.

Twilight Series by Stephenie Myer

Twilight book series by Stephenie Meyer

Anybody who came of age during the late 2000s will remember the Twilight craze that swept the world. However, you may be surprised to learn that the Twilight series has been banned or challenged since publication of the eponymous first novel in 2005. The most famous example of banning the series occurred in September 2008, when the Twilight books were temporarily removed from middle school libraries in the Capistrano Unified School District in California for “containing subject matter which is deemed too mature for our middle school-level students.” In an odd turn of events, the district’s instructional materials specialist, the one who had initially banned the series, quickly changed her mind, revoking her previous decision for unknown reasons, and later asked district librarians to “disregard” her initial banned book email.

Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

The Harry Potter series are some of the most banned books of all time and the American Library Association lists them as the most challenged book series of the twenty-first century. The series is predominately challenged for its portrayal of witchcraft and its recurrent dark themes, including death. As late as 2019, 20 years after its original publication in 1999, it remained the ninth most “challenged” book of that year, also according to the American Library Association

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

The teen dystopian novel fad of the early 2010s did not escape the wrath of censorship. The first book of the Hunger Games trilogy, originally published in 2008, began “catching fire” for its portrayal of young adult violence which resulted in it being the fifth most challenged book of 2010, according to the American Library Association. The trilogy is set in a dystopian future in which children are made to fight to the death on reality television. Suzanne Collins, the author of the Hunger Games, was inspired when she watched a reality game show right after footage of the Iraq war. Interestingly, the series has also been a source of controversy in Thailand. A three-finger salute, used by characters in the novel as a form of defiance, was adopted by Thailand’s anti-government protestors resulting in the salute being banned by the Thai military. One of the film adaptations of the Hunger Games was also banned in Thailand.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

The third most banned book of 2020, according to the American Library Association, was the young adult novel All American Boys. The book is the story of two teenage boys, Rashad Butler and Quinn Collins, as they encounter racism and police brutality while coming of age in modern America. The most dramatic challenge to All American Boys occurred in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, where the law enforcement union argued for the book to be banned from a local high school. The school’s librarian fought for the book to continue being taught and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to the principal urging the district not to remove the book from the high school’s curriculum. The school made the decision to keep the book in the curriculum, but it has continued to be challenged by school districts throughout the United States.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Based upon the real-life experiences of its author Sherman Alexie, the story is about a Native American teenager named Arnold Spirit, Jr., a 14-year-old amateur cartoonist who decides to leave the reservation where he grew up, and attend a nearly all-white public high school. Controversy centers on the book’s depiction of alcohol-use, poverty, bullying, violence, profanity, and homophobic slurs. Since publication in 2008, the book has consistently appeared on the annual list of frequently challenged books from 2010 to 2019 according to the American Library Association.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This book needs no introduction to most Americans, as it has been part of high-school English curriculums for decades. Set in the Deep South of the 1930s, the coming-of-age story is about the protagonist Scout Finch, a young girl who grapples with both racial inequality and growing up. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most frequently challenged books in the United States due to its portrayal of rape, use of profanity, and inclusion of racial slurs. In 2017, the novel was removed from middle school classrooms in Biloxi, Mississippi following a complaint from a parent citing the use of racial slurs. After protests from free speech advocates, the novel was added back to a list of optional readings for students. In 2018, it was banned from schools in Duluth, Minnesota due to its use of racial slurs, where it remains banned to this day.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

In 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned for the first time just one month after its publication. “Not suitable for trash,” said the outraged librarian in Concord, Massachusetts who banned the book from the town’s library. Set in the Antebellum South, the story is a first-person narrative told by Huckleberry “Huck” Finn who teams up with an escaped enslaved man named Jim, as they float down the Mississippi towards differing versions of freedom. Nearly 140 years later, this novel has been challenged and banned numerous times by parents, school boards, publishers, and librarians, citing use of racial slurs and bigoted language. It is currently ranked number 14 on the top 100 Banned/Challenged books in America.

Check out our Banned Books article from 2020, which focused on Maine authors.

Keep reading...

As a part of Banned Books Week, which ran from September 27th through October 3rd in 2020, we explored the nature of censorship and banning in the United States. Each book conveys a different lesson on how censorship works in a country with an established law protecting freedom of speech and press like the First Amendment.

For that year’s theme, Maine Authors, we took a look at the works of authors with a connection to Maine, for a list of seven books in total.

Carrie by Stephen King

One of Bangor author Stephen King’s most famous novels, Carrie revolves around Carrie White, a high-school girl from an abusive religious household who uses her newly discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who torment her. It is one of the most frequently banned books in United States schools, because of Carrie’s violence, cursing, underage sex, and negative view of religion. Much of the book uses newspaper clippings, magazine articles, letters, and excerpts from books to tell how Carrie destroyed the fictional town of Chamberlain, Maine while exacting revenge on her sadistic classmates and her own mother, Margaret.

This book has been banned in Nevada, Vermont, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota. But how does banning a book work? The process of banning a book begins with the individual who is issuing the challenge, usually a parent or librarian. A challenge is “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.” A challenge is the beginning of the process towards getting a book banned, which means that many challenges do not fall through. Schools, bookstores, and libraries are the only places that can ban books that have been challenged. Once a challenge is made, the institution in question can either ban the book from the premises or deny the challenge. Bans are made on an institutional basis, which means if a book is banned in one library, it is not banned in all others.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

How could anyone ban the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon? Anne Carroll Moore was a staffer at the New York Public Library (NYPL) in 1906 and had the responsibility of supervising the children’s collections. She was also a tastemaker whose NYPL-branded lists of recommended children’s books could make or break a book’s fortunes. Moore’s taste was particular, however. When Brown’s famous book was released in 1947, Moore found it an “unbearably sentimental piece of work.” Therefore, the book wasn’t purchased by the New York Public Library, and while children were encouraged to check out all kinds of books from the library’s extensive children’s department, Goodnight Moon was not one of them. 

In part because of Moore’s blacklisting, Goodnight Moon wasn’t an immediate commercial success; by 1951 sales had dropped low enough that the publisher considered taking it out of print. The book regained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s as chains such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton grew. By 1972, the book’s 25th anniversary, Goodnight Moon was nearing 100,000 copies sold a year. Perhaps it was that anniversary that spurred the library to finally stock the book. As mentioned in the blurb above about Carrie, banning can only be done on an institutional level. In the case of Goodnight Moon, it was done on the whim of a single individual with pretty substantial consequences.

Author Margaret Wise Brown would never live to see the explosion in popularity of her book due to the tastes of a single staff member at the NYPL. Brown died in 1952. Her ashes were scattered near her island home in Vinalhaven, Maine.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter, the bane of every high school English student around the country, is a novel published in 1850 by the quintessential New England author, and Bowdoin College graduate, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony during the years 1642 to 1649, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne who conceives a daughter through an affair and then struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. 

The book was met with almost immediate backlash upon its publication with the most vocal group of critics being Hawthorne’s neighbors themselves. Having been born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne had a lot of controversial opinions about his hometown. When the book was published, a number of prominent Salem residents protested the way Hawthorne portrayed their beloved city. Following the initial brouhaha surrounding the book, it has been challenged and banned multiple times throughout American history with one of the most recent examples being as late as 1977, when a group of parents in one school district challenged it, calling the book “pornographic and obscene.” 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Perhaps the most infamous and consequential banned book of all time is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. Stowe, who lived for a period in Brunswick, Maine, was a prominent abolitionist. Unpacking a book with as much baggage as Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be complicated but we will give it a shot. Buckle up.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells the story of Uncle Tom, depicted as a saintly, dignified slave. While being transported by boat to auction in New Orleans, Tom saves the life of Little Eva, whose grateful father then purchases Tom. Eva and Tom soon become great friends. Always frail, Eva’s health begins to decline rapidly, and on her deathbed, she asks her father to free all his slaves. He makes plans to do so but is then killed, and the brutal Simon Legree, Tom’s new owner, has Tom whipped to death after he refuses to divulge the whereabouts of certain runaway slaves. Tom maintains a steadfastly Christian attitude toward his own suffering, and Stowe imbues Tom’s death with echoes of Christ’s.

The book was a piece of activism on Stowe’s part and was meant to convey the evils of slavery to a national and general audience. Its anti-slavery message obviously ruffled quite a few feathers in the slave-holding Southern United States, which led to a de facto banishment in many Southern communities. Booksellers were intimidated into not distributing the book. It is perhaps one of the few books in American history that has experienced this form of censorship. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama was forced to leave town for selling the novel, for example. Stowe herself received many threatening letters from Southern critics – one included the severed ear of a slave.  

Today, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is banned for a variety of other reasons. In 1984, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was ”forbidden” in a Waukegan, Illinois school district for its inclusion of racial slurs.  

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte’s Web proves that anything can offend someone, somewhere. Charlotte’s Web is a children’s book about talking animals written by North Brooklin, Maine, resident E.B. White in 1952.

In 2006, several parents in a Kansas school district decided that talking animals are blasphemous and unnatural; passages about the spider dying were also criticized as being “inappropriate subject matter for a children’s book.” According to the parent group at the heart of the issue, “humans are the highest level of God’s creation and are the only creatures that can communicate vocally. Showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God.”

This, unfortunately, was not the only time Charlotte’s Web was the subject of religious controversy. At a junior high school in Batley, West Yorkshire, England, in 2003, the school’s overzealous headteacher decreed that all books featuring pigs should be removed because it could potentially offend the school’s Muslim students and their parents. No such complaints were ever filed by any parent involved with the school, but the school official felt she was being proactive in her policy. Islamic leaders in the community asked the school to drop its ban, which included Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, and the Three Little Pigs. The Muslim Council of Britain formally requested an end to the “well-intentioned but misguided” policy, and for all titles to be returned to classroom shelves. 

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

While Kafka on the Shores‘s author Haruki Murakami does not have a personal tie to Maine, this book does have an interesting Maine connection. 

Kafka on the Shore is, as described on Murakami’s website: “powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.” 

The book contains graphic language describing a sexual encounter in one chapter and rape in another. These scenes in particular drew the ire of Maine state representative Amy Arata in 2019. Arata claimed such material was inappropriate for public school students. “Society is finally taking sexual abuse and sexual harassment seriously. And this type of material is so far over the top. If you were to give this to an employee, you’d get sued for sexual harassment. Yet a teacher can give this to a kid and it’s legal,” Arata said. As a Republican lawmaker, she sponsored a bill in the Maine State House that would ban the book from schools in Maine. However, Arata’s bill was shot-down in the State House and never passed. 

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Alvin Schwartz, the man most responsible for giving every child born in the 1980s and 1990s nightmares due to his book series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, infamous for their terror-inducing illustrations, was a graduate of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. 

The history of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is also one mired in countless attempts of censorship and faux hysteria over its supposedly inappropriate content. According to the American Library Association, the series was the single most banned and/or challenged book in the United States. Even in the 2000s, the books remained in the top ten most challenged titles. Scary Stories was criticized for, unsurprisingly, being too scary. Critics slammed Schwartz for supposedly traumatizing a whole generation of kids (perhaps with good reason). The stories themselves are certainly appropriately chilling for their target audience, serving perfectly as a kid’s first introduction to horror. Most of the tales are rooted in familiar folklore or urban legends, with influences running deep across the history of literature.

This particular kind of concern trolling is frequently evoked during attempts at censorship. “Think of the children, they’re simply too delicate and naïve to understand what fiction is.” It’s a dangerous precedent to set when one insists that depicting something is an automatic endorsement of it. Raising concerns over children is typically the easiest way to encourage censorship across the board. The other implication of this attitude is that children should never be exposed to anything that may challenge them, which is really the only way we can grow as human beings.

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