Freedom to read

Book banning is no laughing matter

Christopher Finan Enlarge photo

Christopher Finan

What’s dirty about a naked cowboy?

This spring, officials in a Pennsylvania school district banned Amy Timberlake’s The Dirty Cowboy, a children’s picture book about a cowboy taking his annual bath. Illustrator Adam Rex thought he had avoided exposing any of the cowboy’s shocking parts through the strategic placement of birds, a boot and a cloud of dust.

Wrong! The parents of a student complained to the school board that the illustrations are pornographic and demanded that The Dirty Cowboy be removed from the district’s elementary school libraries. More than 200 people signed a petition supporting the book, but the school board ordered it off library shelves. Students must have written permission to borrow it.

The banning of The Dirty Cowboy is one of the sillier examples of the kind of censorship that occurs in American schools and libraries every year. It would be laughable if there wasn’t so much of it. The American Library Association reports that there were 326 book challenges in 2011. Over the last 30 years, ALA has counted more than 11,000 challenges.

Librarians, booksellers, publishers and authors launched Banned Books Week in 1982 to draw attention to the problem of book censorship. This year’s celebration of the freedom to read is being held today through Oct. 6.

People try to ban books for many reasons. The Harry Potter books were the most frequently challenged for several years because some people think they encourage belief in witchcraft and magic. Recently, there have been a growing number of complaints about books that “promote” homosexuality. And Tango Makes Three, a children’s picture book about two male penguins who raise a chick, topped the most challenged list from 2006 to 2008.

Most books are challenged because of sexual content, offensive language or violence.

Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, has described contemporary young adult literature as “a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. ... (A) careless young reader– or one who seeks out depravity–will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kind.”

The authors of young adult novels reply that kids need books that are realistic.

“Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics,” Laurie Halse Anderson wrote. “Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world.”

Her novel, Speak, a book about the problem of sexual violence, was denounced as “soft-core pornography” in Republic, Missouri. School officials rejected the challenge.

Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been one of the most frequently challenged books for several years, also replied.

“I write for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers,” he said. “I write to give them weapons – in the form of words and ideas – that will help them fight their monsters.”

People who are trying to ban books deny that they are engaged in censorship. They believe they are protecting children and defending the right of parents to decide what their children read.

But no one disputes the right of parents to request an alternate assignment if they object to a book their child is asked to read. What is at issue is the freedom of the other children to read books that have been chosen for them by teachers and librarians who have applied professional criteria to select the best books.

While most book challenges fail, too many succeed. The Texas ACLU reports that 17 books were banned in Texas last year. A survey of book challenges in Missouri public schools since 2008 has established that 12 of the 53 challenged books were removed. Even when books are retained, teachers may be afraid to teach them, or others like them, for fear of setting off another controversy.

Things would certainly be far worse if teachers, librarians, parents, students and even some administrators weren’t fighting back. Today, most libraries and school districts have a formal review process for handling complaints, which has helped reduce the number of book bans.

But the effort to censor books is something we can’t laugh off. The battle for free speech must continue.

Christopher Finan is the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America.