Read With Us: Banned Books Week
September 26 — October 2 marks Banned Books Week, described by the namesake organization as “the annual celebration of the freedom to read.” Sponsored by a number of library, publisher, and bookseller organizations, titles on these lists are largely heralded as books we should be seeing more of — the lists only generate further notoriety for featured titles. This begs the questions: what does it really mean to be a “banned book?” The most obvious example is a book that an angry parent demands to be removed from the school library. Wherever it is, a banned book may not actually be removed, but it could be designated as such on the basis of a challenge by a community member. Banned books typically face these challenges in libraries (although bookstores hear them too), and each year the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom compiles lists of such challenged titles as reported by media and submitted by librarians and booksellers (Banned Books Week).
In honor of Banned Books Week I’m reflecting on a few of my own favorite “banned books” in a special Read With Us installment, starting with a title that remains on the 2020 top ten list of challenged titles.
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Number 9 on 2020’s top ten list, a book that I have been assigned twice throughout my education, and what is now considered a modern American classic, Toni Morrison’s debut novel requires a litany of content warnings. The Bluest Eye deals with rape, incest, alcoholism, domestic abuse, prostitution, and racism — all in just 224 pages. Reportedly banned for depictions of child sexual abuse, it is understandable why parents may not want this book circulating throughout school curriculum. I honestly don’t know whether my reading of The Bluest Eye in high school was as thoughtful and critically sound as these subjects require. But, and this is a crucial “but” that affirms my disbelief in book bans, this was part of my learning experience. I wasn’t able to offer holistic analysis as a senior in high school, but once I returned to the book as a senior in college, I had the tools to do so. Banning books does nothing but remove an opportunity for readers to learn critical thinking and practice their evaluation of a title’s literary merit.
2. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Critical analysis aside, some books are just necessary to have access to because they will resonate with readers’ experiences. Fun Home is one of those. It does come with heavy content warnings: pedophilia, homophobia, suicide…but unlike The Bluest Eye, most people don’t think of Fun Home in relation to those explicit warnings. Rather, it’s known as its whole: a gay coming of age memoir. Banned Books Week doesn’t share the reason for banning, but other sources state that it has been challenged on the basis of “pornographic content” (KSL), which I would argue is just code for “homosexual.” As noted by the title, Fun Home is a comic style graphic novel. Readers follow Bechdel’s experience realizing she is a lesbian, alongside uncovering a revelation that her father is gay. Banning a graphic novel feels significant. The designation that Fun Home could be “pornographic” surely refers to the PG-13 imagery that is drawn in. Readers are forced to confront a reality that may look very different to their own, and the visual is hard to shake.
3. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
My Sister’s Keeper follows two sisters, one who is dying of leukemia and one who has been saving her via medical donations her entire life. Anna, the younger donor, decides she wants to quit these hospital visits and sue for her right to make medical decisions, instead of her parents, effectively deciding to cut off her sister Kate’s chance at survival. No one in the book is entirely morally pure, but the real reason it’s so interesting is because we as readers start to question what we would even consider moral in the first place. I first read this book in fifth grade, maybe on the young side to hypothesize about these deeply ethical questions. However, this book is an interesting study on empathy, community, family, and bodily autonomy. These debates inevitably surface in one’s life, even without undergoing the extreme circumstances in this story, and trying not to think about them is unhelpful for everyone.
4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
One of the top titles on this year’s banned list is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. ALA reports that it has been “challenged because of the author’s public statements.” Enter the can-we-separate-the-art-from-the-artist debate. This question was an integral part of a literary theory class I took freshman year, and since then, I have only seen it growing in popular culture. My personal philosophy is that it’s okay to separate the art itself if it does not spew the same problematic beliefs, as long as you aren’t financially funding their personal lifestyle (e.g. just buy second hand). The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered part of the queer literary canon, yet the text itself is not especially overt. Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, is famed for his arrests and notoriously “lewd” behavior for his time. It’s hard to say whether The Picture of Dorian Gray has been banned in 2019 based on 1890’s social standards. Dorian, with his famed vanity, is a morally corrupt character. He engages in all manner of hedonism, knowing that he can hide his true decay in the enchanted portrait. Maybe the book’s premise is the reason for these challenges, but likely it’s the association with gay behavior that has put it to test. Neither are relevant to me; I think Oscar and Dorian are both hoots.
So where does this leave readers?
Not every person’s attempt to ban a book is rooted in racism, homophobia, sexism, or another prejudice, but these biases frequently seem to fuel the lists of censored titles. People fear that books will incite change — the kind of change that may threaten their own privilege. As Collective Book Studio founder Angela Engel says, “Books change lives. Books can create a movement in people. And when people are moved, they are able to change the world.” Let’s celebrate Banned Books Week by calling attention to these change-making titles.
For more information on banned books, visit: https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks