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This week is Banned Book Week, a celebration of the freedom to read and an acknowledgement of the ongoing fight against censorship. There is much to talk about this year, including a fascinating survey by School Library Journal about librarian self-censorship and a PEN America report on challenged diverse children’s books, coupled with recent conversations sparked by author Lionel Shriver’s controversial comments about cultural appropriation and freedom of speech.
So, where are we when it comes to censorship? We asked authors, scholars, teachers, and librarians to share their thoughts with us in today’s roundtable. Participants:
Guadalupe García McCall, author and teacher
Jo Knowles, author
Pat Scales, librarian
Debbie Reese, scholar
Pat, as the former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, you’ve seen a number of book challenges over the years. What has changed since you first began looking at these issues? What has remained the same?
Pat Scales: Issues related to profanity, violence, and sex have always brought the censors calling. In the early 1970s and 1980s Judy Blume was being censored in school and public libraries coast to coast because she dealt with topics related to sex, bullying and other issues associated with coming of age. These were relatively new topics at the time. Now, her books aren’t challenged so much, but a host of others are. 21st century issues and concerns have ushered in a new wave of books that trouble censors. The Supreme Court decision that made gay marriage legal has caused some conservative groups to target books that deal with LGBTQ topics. As states wrestle with issues like North Carolina’s “Bathroom Bill,” the censors storm libraries looking for books about transgender youth like George by Alex Gino, Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, and I Am J by Cris Beam. These books are the subject of Internet chatter on various listserves and blogs. Book Fair and Book Club companies refuse to offer these books in an effort to avoid controversy. And librarians, especially school librarians, sometimes avoid purchasing the books because they themselves are uncomfortable with the topic, or because they don’t want to “raise a red flg” to the censors.
The growing incidents of school violence in this country have caused censors to question whether violence has a place in children’s and young adult literature. Never mind that violence has always been present in children’s literature, and that children and young adults get a healthy exposure to street violence on the nightly news.
Conservative Christian groups have always raised concerns about topics that conflict with their religious beliefs. In the days when OIF and NCAC began tracking book censorship attempts, there were lists of “Inappropriate Literature” circulated among conservative organizations. Now these groups have websites and make such lists available by simply clicking a mouse. These websites come and go, but it remains alarming that a small number of groups want to control the narrative about what children should or shouldn’t read. There is some good news: Calling out censorship attempts to the public has caused the number of challenges to decline.
Book censorship does reflect trends. There is no way to predict what will be next. We must deal with them one at a time.
Jo, your novel Lessons from a Dead Girl appears on ALA’s list of frequently challenged books. How do you respond as an author when your book is challenged? Have you seen challenges change over time?
Jo Knowles: I can’t think of a single conference I’ve attended in the past ten years in which at least one person has not said to me, “I love your books but could never have them in my library/classroom.” Often they say their community is too conservative for books with
“homosexual content.” Sadly, this hasn’t changed.
How do I respond? I share on social media in an attempt to start a thoughtful conversation. At a librarian dinner a year or so ago, one librarian noted she couldn’t have See You At Harry’s in her library (for the usual reason), and then another agreed. I asked them: “What would happen?” One said, “A parent would complain and I’d probably have to remove it.” “That’s it?” I asked. They both got quiet, then agreed they could handle that. I realize that in some communities, people fear losing their jobs. It’s a sad reality. But I still have to try to have the conversation, because sometimes people realize the risk isn’t that great. And if one kid gets to read the book and feel less alone or gain more compassion for others before it gets pulled from the shelves, it’s worth it.
As a teacher and a writer, how do you balance the need to tell the truth about history and parents’ desire to protect their children?
Guadalupe Garcia McCall: As a teacher, parent, and now grandparent, I do have to consider my audience carefully. Because I am in the classroom, I am sensitive to the concerns of parents and other teachers. I try to balance writing about controversial issues by writing with young people’s best interest in mind. That is, I always try to approach these topics honestly, but also respectfully and responsibly. Truth is, young people have information at their fingertips. Even as we are talking about a topic or time period, they reach for their phones and Google it. So there is no point in trying to pretend these things (e.g. the lynching of Mexicans by Texas Rangers in South Texas at the turn of the century) didn’t happen. . . . By discussing sensitive issues in a respectful manner, we are teaching young people not only to have respect for these topics but also to be sensitive to others.
Thinking about recent examples of books with problematic content (i.e., content that was not culturally accurate) being pulled prior to or just after publication, how do you feel about the publishers’ decisions to pull the book?
Debbie Reese: I hope that the recent decisions by publishers to withdraw a book, just before or after the book has been released, marks a turning point for us. We all care about the quality of representations of people. We’re not all in the same place in understanding what “quality” means, but I think social media is helping us reach a wider audience, and therefore, we’re in a substantially different moment.
Pat Scales: Books that reflect a culturally diverse society need to be in classrooms and in school and public libraries. But I’m uncomfortable with a “checklist” that leftist groups have developed to critique these books. I fear that publishers have become so sensitive to these groups that they have second thoughts about books they have committed to publication.
Jo Knowles: If I was a publisher and had a book recently released, or about to be, only to discover that we overlooked a very problematic aspect of the content, at the very least I would want to pull it back for revisions. I know if I were the author or illustrator of such a book I would want the same. If there’s a way to correct the problem, why wouldn’t you?
What, if anything, differentiates these examples from censorship?
Jo Knowles: Teachers and librarians weed books from collections when they discover they’ve become outdated or have incorrect information all the time. I don’t see that as censorship but as standard practice for collection development and management.
What differentiates these examples from censorship is that they are an issue of factual inaccuracy and cultural misrepresentation. That’s not the same as pulling a book because an individual found the content inappropriate for personal reasons, such as containing the presence of witchcraft, use of the word “scrotum,” or, as is often the case with my books, including an LGBT character.
Pat Scales: Publishers have an obligation to “fact-check” their books for “accurate portrayals” of diverse groups before the books are actually published. Companies are for profit, and make business decisions regarding the sales of books, but when a book is pulled prior to or immediately following publication it smacks of censorship. Is the concern that a reviewer may pan the book, and therefore affect sales? Or, is it about doing the right thing? Teachers and librarians are placed in the position to defend books when the censor calls, and publishers should defend the books they elect to publish. Librarians make mistakes, and so do publishers. But those mistakes die a natural death.
Debbie Reese: I don’t view publishers making decisions to hold or withdraw a book as engaging in censorship. These are business decisions made by business people who’ve reflected on concerns they heard. They responded to those concerns. We aren’t privy to the conversations, but my guess is that some of the conversation was about the public relations and reputation of the company, and that some of it was about the new information brought forth via social media.
I imagine the conversations were terse at times, with some arguing that the company should not “give in” to voices of dissent. I also imagine that such arguments were countered with an argument that the demographics in the US are shifting, and that it is a wise business decision to pay attention to that shift.
The ideal is to have more books with good representation, but problems do persist. How should we handle books with incorrect or culturally insensitive content?
Debbie Reese: Even very young children understand the concept of fairness. I think that concept is one avenue by which teachers can approach incorrect or culturally insensitive content. I firmly believe that the idea that young children are “too young” to be taught about bias and stereotyping is a problem. It lets ideas they absorb–simply by being a person moving through a society laden with stereotyping at every level–take root. It makes it harder for children to unlearn these stereotypes. Some resist, while others feel betrayed that their teachers gave them worksheets for years, of (for example), smiling Indians at Thanksgiving.
Teachers have a very important job: to educate. Parents trust that teachers won’t do wrong by their kids. There is an implicit trust in the teacher’s judgement. Teachers choose–every day–what they will, and will not, share with their students. . . . If a teacher gives children a book with inaccurate information in it, I believe they have a responsibility to point out those errors–or choose something else! If they choose to use it and point out the error, it teaches children a valuable lesson: you can’t trust every word in a book. That’s a powerful lesson!
Tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, Debbie Reese founded American Indians in Children’s Literature in 2006. Her book chapters and articles are taught in Education, Library Science, and English courses in the US and Canada. A former schoolteacher and assistant professor in American Indian Studies, she conducts workshops for librarians and teachers and delivers papers and lectures at professional and academic conferences.
Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in Theater Arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school in San Antonio. McCall’s debut novel Under the Mesquite earned the Pura Belpré Award. Her newest novel is Shame the Stars.
Jo Knowles is the author of seven young adult novels, including Lessons from a Dead Girl and Still a Work in Progress. She lives in Vermont and teaches in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. Find her online here.
Pat Scales is a retired middle and high school librarian from Greenville, SC. She has authored five books that deal with banned and challenged books, including Defending Young Adult Books: A Handbook for Librarians and Teachers, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). She also writes a column “Scales on Censorship” for School Library Journal and is a regular contributor to Book Links magazine.
Egyptian author Ahmed Naji will serve two years in prison for writing “sexually explicit” content in his book, Using Life.
The sentence comes after the novelist was found guilty of violating public modesty laws when an excerpt from his book was published in a magazine. CNN has the scoop:
A man had complained that Naji’s writings caused him heart palpitations, sickness and a drop in blood pressure. Prosecutors took the case to court, arguing that Naji’s use of “vulgar” phrases to describe genitals and sexual intercourse constituted a “disease destroying social values.”
I’d really like to ban the term “self-censorship” from discourse, given that we already have a spectrum of words–from “prudence” to “cowardice”–that say more precisely what we mean, and because it causes us to be confused about what censorship actually is.
As Megan Schliesman at Reading While White posted last week, the discussion about A Birthday Cake for George Washington is not about censorship. People talking about what’s wrong with the book are not censors; people saying it will damage children are not censors; Scholastic deciding to cease the book’s distribution is not censorship. Hell, somebody buying a copy of the book only in order to consign it to a bonfire is not censorship. (I think I told you guys I did this once, with a Sidney Sheldon book whose utter disregard for logical plot construction and consistent characterization caused me to pitch it into the fireplace by which I was reading. It felt naughty.)
Censorship happens when the government–and this includes public libraries–gets into the business of restricting access to information. As far as A Birthday Cake for George Washington is concerned, it would be censorship if a library that held a copy decided to restrict readership to adults, for example, or removed it from the collection on the basis of its being “offensive” or “harmful to children.” It is also censorship if a public library decided not to purchase the book on the grounds that it is offensive or harmful, or if the library thinks it will get into trouble with those who find it so. This is of course very tricky–libraries don’t purchase more books than they do, and it’s rarely one criterion that guides that decision. Here is where we have to trust in the librarian’s integrity and the library’s book selection policy and adherence to ALA’s Library Bill of Rights. I know I’ve told the story here before about the librarian I knew who didn’t purchase a sex ed book for children on the grounds that it didn’t have an index. Yes, it did not have an index–but that wasn’t the reason she didn’t buy it.
I bring all this up because of an interesting exchange I had on Twitter last week with YA novelist Daniel José Older. Reacting in a subtweet to my post about A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake, Older wrote “Ah here’s the Horn/Sutton tut tutting on why Scholastic should’ve let kids read that book,” with a screenshot of part of the post. I replied–or barged in, depending on your views about subtweeting–that I and the Horn believe kids should be allowed to read any book they wish. Then he asked me if I was cool with kids reading Little Black Sambo, Mein Kampf and The Story of O. (I think he dated us both with that last example.) Although I’m aware that this was intended as a sort of gotcha rhetorical question, it made me realize that Mr. Older is probably not familiar with the way librarians think. I said I was perfectly fine with kids reading any or all of those three books.
A bias toward believing that people, kids included, should be able to read whatever they want is so ingrained in librarianship that we can forget that it seems like a radical stance to civilians. And as discussions about children’s books have moved, via social media, beyond the usual suspects of teachers, librarians, and publishers, it would be good for all concerned to remember that our assumptions are not necessarily shared.
Israel’s Ministry of Education has prohibited Dorit Rabinyan’s Gader Haya (which translates to Borderlife in English) from being used in the curriculum of Hebrew high schools. This novel features a love story shared between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man.
Here’s more from The New York Times: “Several bookstores said they had sold out of the novel, which tells the story of an Israeli woman from Tel Aviv who falls in love with a Palestinian born in the West Bank city of Hebron after a chance encounter in New York. Ms. Rabinyan, the author, said that the book was not meant to be provocative…The book, she said, was ‘only a mirror’ of the complexity of life in Israel.”
BuzzFeed reports that TimeOut Tel Aviv has created a video to protest this act of censorship. The piece (embedded above) features six couples (comprised of Jewish and Arab people) kissing. Thus far, it has drawn more than 123,000 views on YouTube. (via The Telegraph)
Hong Kong legislator Albert Ho believes that Chinese security officers kidnapped five publishing company/book store employees in an attempt to censor their work.
In a press conference over the weekend, Ho said that he believes that the five missing book professionals from the Mighty Current publishing house were taken for working on books critical of the Chinese government. The latest project to come under scrutiny is a book about the former love life of President Xi Jinping. Yahoo News has the scoop:
The disappearances add to growing unease that freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese city are being eroded.
Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, it enjoys freedom of speech and Chinese law enforcers have no right to operate in the city.
A Wisconsin school board member is hoping to remove, For Every Child a Better World by Jim Henson, from it kindergarten class’ reading list.
Marshfield School Board member Mary Carney thinks that the content is inappropriate for the age of the children. In the book Kermit the Frog teaches young readers that some other young children lack basic necessities such as housing, water, food, and medical care. The Marshfield Herald has more:
“I just have concerns that it’s too graphic, even though these are Muppets characters,” Carney said. “Unfortunately in this world there is a lot of war and strife and poverty; I understand that. I just don’t know how appropriate that is to be teaching that to 5-year-olds.”
Carney hopes the school board will remove the title from the 2016 curriculum. School Board vice president Amber Leifheit, the person in charge of the School Board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee, thinks that the book teaches compassion.
On November 3rd, KidLit TV was invited to the National Coalition Against Censorship to interview NCAC board members, artists, authors, and experts about up and coming books that celebrate diversity and free speech advocacy. NCAC’s mission is to promote freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression and oppose censorship in all its forms.
NCAC celebrated another year of free speech advocacy and saluted Lois Lowry, Larry Siems, Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole as 2015 Free Speech Defenders. The evening raised funds from generous sponsors, led by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to support NCAC’s mission, and featured performances from Fun Home, a tribute by Alison Bechdel, and inspiring words from each of our honorees. A special thanks to comedian Jena Friedman, who kept the audience laughing through the night as our master of ceremonies.
Comic books have long purveyed action, action, and still more action. Their plot lines do not simply progress, they are raging torrents of emotion, violence, and drama. They were a part of the mass commercialization of leisure during the twentieth century.
A Texas school district has changed its policy on selecting books taught in schools after a months long battle over David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America.
The Highland Park school district has revised its policy how both how books are chosen, as well as how parent concerns are addressed. The Dallas Morning Newshas more:
Under the revised policy, staff members are required to ensure that books \"are evaluated as a whole and selected for their strengths rather than rejected for their weaknesses.\" Selections \"shall not contain excessive or gratuitous explicit sexuality, excessive or gratuitous profanity, or excessive or gratuitous graphic violence.\"
The new policy also limits how parent complaints are handled. The district will now consolidate complaints about the same work into one review. In addition, once a complaint is reviewed, the same book cannot be challenged for another three years.
“I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Besides various PEN executives and trustees, several high profile writers have also signed this note. Some of the participants include PEN president emeritus Salman Rushdie, novelist Neil Gaiman, children’s books illustrator Jules Feiffer, poet John Ashbery, and playwright Tony Kushner. Here’s an excerpt:
“PEN is appalled at the intrusive, criminal and profoundly menacing reprisals and threats that Sony Pictures has endured as a result of producing and planning to distribute The Interview. PEN has long stood with writers and creators who have suffered assaults aimed to suppress the dissemination of their ideas. We believe firmly that violence is never justified as a reaction to speech, no matter how offensive that speech may be to some.”
The hackers behind the Interview incident have elicited both anger and fear from American moviegoers. A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin (pictured, via) has publicly expressed great fury towards Sony for pulling the film from theaters.
Here’s an excerpt from Martin’s blog post: “I haven’t seen The Interview. I have no idea how good or bad a film it is…That’s not the point, though. Whether it’s the next Citizen Kane or the next Plan 9 From Outer Space, it astonishes me that a major Hollywood film could be killed before release by threats from a foreign power and anonymous hackers.”
Should The Interview ever become available, Martin has offered to showcase it at his own independent theater. Martin owns the Jean Cocteau Cinema which is based in Santa Fe, NM. What do you think? (via comicbook.com)
A government ban on which prohibited prisoners in England and Wales from having family and friends send them books, has been ruled unlawful.
BBC News has more: “Mr Justice Collins said he could see “no good reason” to restrict access to books for prisoners.The Prison Service said it was a surprising judgement, and would look at how it would deal with the ruling. The legal challenge was brought by inmate Barbara Gordon-Jones, who is serving part of her life sentence at Send prison near Woking in Surrey.”
The ban began last November. Supporters of the law argued that prisoners can earn the right to buy books through the prison’s book selling program through a new ”incentives and earned privileges” regime. Authors spoke out against the ban calling it “loathsome,” and launching a Change.org petition to overturn the ban.
The town council of Tuszyn, Poland have banned Winnie-the-Pooh from a local playground. The politicians who made this censorious decree first examined A.A. Milne’sfamous bear when they were trying to appoint a famous character as the face of this public space.
This group found Pooh’s lack of pants and questionable gender to be offensive and “wholly inappropriate for children.” All four Winnie-the-Pooh short story collections feature illustrations by artist E. H. Shepard; Shepard’s artwork consistently depicts Pooh not wearing pants.
Here’s more from the The Independent: “The meeting of officials was sneakily recorded a councillor and leaked to local press, according to The Croatian Times. One unnamed councillor can be heard discussing Pooh’s sexuality, arguing that ‘it doesn’t wear underpants because it doesn’t have a sex’ before another, Hanna Jachimska starts criticising Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne.” (via Jezebel)
Children’s books author Josh Funk wants to celebrated Banned Books Week by speaking out against censorship. In the video embedded above, Funk (pictured, via) endorses both “band books” and “banned books.” What are your favorite books that have received either challenges or bannings?
Over the last few days, the #TeachBannedBooks hashtag has swept Twitter. In honor of Banned Books Week, The Huffington Post asked educators to explain why they introduce their students to certain banned books using the social media platform.
Some of the titles mentioned include The Hunger Games, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (embedded below), and The Giver. What do you think?
Title: Rumble Written by: Ellen Hopkins Published by: Margaret K. McElderry Books, Sept. 2014 Ages: 14+ Novel in verse Themes: bullying, gay teens, faith, religion, forgiveness, hypocrisy, ptsd, suicide, gun management Reviewed from an ARC. All opinions are my own. Opening … Continue reading →
John Green’sThe Fault in Our Stars has been banned in the middle schools within the Riverside Unified School District (based in California).
Vanity Fair reports that a parent named Karen Krueger raised a complaint against the popular young adult novel because she “felt the morbid plot, crude language, and sexual content was inappropriate for her children.” Krueger convinced a committee of educators and guardians put it to a vote which resulted in this act of censorship.
Green shared his reaction to this situation on Tumblr. He claims to feel both happy and sad; the sadness comes from a desire “to introduce the idea that human beings die to the children of Riverside, California and thereby crush their dreams of immortality.” What do you think?
According to the editor’s letter, an assortment of writers, scholars, and public figures have been brought on to examine “the list of books that are reportedly banned from GTMO—including their own—and tried to figure out why.” Some of the titles that can’t be accessed at this institution include The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass, and The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank. The New Yorker staffer Ariel Levy looked into Frank’s famous Holocaust memoir; here’s an excerpt from her article:
“The starkest difference between the captivity of Anne Frank and those in Guantánamo Bay is that Anne Frank and her family were in hiding. It must be so surreal for those in Gitmo to know that the whole world knows they’re there. We all know and it doesn’t seem to matter. Anne and her family’s whole plight is to remain invisible, to remain secret. In that sense it’s confounding that the book is banned at Guantánamo—the family couldn’t be making any less trouble. What more could you want from a prisoner than invisibility and silence?”
The American Booksellers Association (ABA) will handle the operations of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE).
Here’s more from the press release: “As was the case when the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC) voted to become part of ABA in 2010 as the ABC Children’s Group, ABFFE will become a distinct group within ABA, the American Booksellers for Free Expression Group at ABA (ABFE), beginning January 1. The ABFFE board will be reconstituted as the ABFE Advisory Council.”
According to this new agreement, ABFFE President Chris Finan will be appointed group director for the ABFE. The ABA has designated all of its members as official supporters of the ABFE. Every single indie bookstore with an ABA membership will receive a sticker advocating for free speech and a subscription to a new monthly newsletter called “Free Speech Report.”