At the Women's march

At the Women's march
All Lives Matter

Never Again

Never Again
We Won't Go Back

Sunday, October 18, 2015


On September 29 a free-wheeling conversation took place at New York City’s Housing Works Bookstore Café with four authors of challenged books. The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) is a sponsor of Banned Books Week, an outgrowth of our first campaign against book banning in 1982.

This year’s Banned Books Week’s theme was Young Adult books, the most censored category. David Shipler, author of "Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword," moderated the discussion with David Levithan, author of "Two Boys Kissing"; Meg Medina, author of "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass"; and Coe Booth, author of "Kinda Like Brothers." The discussion focused on each author's experience being banned or challenged, and the importance of free and open access to all books, especially for young adult readers.

Why were these books restricted, undergoing “soft banning”? For Levithan’s books it was the focus on homosexuality, although some school districts and libraries that either didn’t buy the book or kept it unavailable often came up with other reasons, not wanting to be thought of as homophobic. For Medina’s novel it was the title although it didn’t include any word that hasn’t been said on TV. And for Booth’s books, which center on the lives of African American students, a common reason for not buying the book was a statement that a school or community had only a small percentage of nonwhite students or of students on free or reduced lunch plans.

Several themes emerged from the discussion and the Q and A period that followed, including:
• Should books be mirrors of the people and communities that students know – or windows, letting them learn about other values and points of view?
• Teachers and parents should use books to help students explore their feelings about issues, instead of ignoring them. This is especially important for YA readers, who are beginning to explore who they are – and who they want to be.
Shipler reminded us that Huckleberry Finn had been banned in some places soon after its 1885 publication, often because of its poor grammar. It has also come under fire for its use of the word “nigger.” Booth’s books have also run into trouble because of this and other racial slurs – especially among white teachers uncomfortable about teaching them. (I have trouble writing some of these words myself.)

Restrictions, or “soft” banning, varied in form. Sometimes books were kept out of sight or have to be signed out instead of being on the shelf. In one school a student who wanted to read a certain book had to go to the principal’s office to get it – at which point the principal could decide whether the student was mature enough to handle it. This raises two questions: How well does the principal know all of the students? And what kind of judge is he or she about the issues in a particular book, assuming she/he has read it?
So it looks as if First Amendment defenders still have plenty of work to do in protecting the right to read – and the right to write and be published.

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

I am now serving as the Interim Chair of ASJA's First Amendment Committee, which I have been a member of for many years. In 1982 when I was serving as ASJA president, we launched our "I Read Banned Books" campaign with a read-out on the stops of the New York Public Library, and we started distributing our "I Read Banned Books" buttons, which are still available today from ASJA. Unfortunately, censorship is still an important issue.

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