Perhaps I am staring off on a melodramatic note, but if you’ve read any of my blogs or spoken with me for more than 4 seconds, you know I tend to lean hard into hyperbole and dramatics. And again, I’m cheating with my extremely loose use of genre this month. But the requests to censorship certain types of books are important to me as a library worker, an English professor, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and as a person who values the free and unfettered access to the information provided at libraries. So, for these reasons, and because September 18–24, 2022, is Banned Books Week, I am making September’s Genre-of-the-Month all about some profound titles that have faced censorship attacks throughout the years.
The American Library Association publishes data every year about the most challenged and banned books. This data is not complete because the ALA relies on submissions and media statistics, but the information does provide a comparison and a way to view trends. Here is a statement from the ALA’s page regarding this year’s Banned Books Week:
In a time of intense political polarization, library staff in every state are facing an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. Most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.
Banned Books and Me
I spent the majority of my elementary school years at a small private grammar school. There were a lot of restrictions on the books we were supposed to read, the books we were begrudgingly permitted to read and the books we could absolutely not read under any circumstances. For example, we were tested at a “reading level” and could not read anything outside that level. However, I hit the highest reading level (8th grade) sometime before I got to that grade, so I ran out of books I was allowed to read from the school library very quickly. My parents, who encouraged my voracious appetite for reading, took me to the public library instead.
With very few exceptions, my parents let me check out whatever I wanted from the library. Sometimes I’d grab something that seemed too old for me, and I’d either give up part way through because it was so boring, or I’d ask my parents a question, and we’d talk it through.
I did get my first-ever after-school detention because of a book, though. You see, I was rereading the Harry Potter series for the umpteenth time. I’m pretty sure the title in question was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the most recent title of the time. We were NOT allowed to read those types of books at my private school, and when I brought my public library copy along with me to school one day, I got in a lot of trouble.
Being the person I am, I made it my goal in life to read all the books I was told I wasn’t allowed to. To this day, well over 20 years later, I still read all the books on the annual “Top 10 Most Banned and Challenged” list from ALA. Suddenly I was reading about people different than me, new worlds, new mythologies, and I became a new person. I firmly believe that without this kind of exposure to different writings and perspectives, I wouldn’t be the open-minded, inquisitive person I am today. I’d like to share some of the titles that affected me most profoundly.
Reading Recommendations for Banned and Challenged Books
I take censorship very seriously. Part of what drew me to library work is that we are a beacon of information access. Libraries are supposed to be free from bias. We present and collect titles across a wide range of identities and backgrounds. Book bans are inherently the opposite of what we should be doing as an open-minded and inclusive culture. And we limit our real world when we claim that certain identities are inappropriate, or that depictions of real experiences are too violent, or that discussions of racism and institutionalized disparities are unfair or uncomfortable for powerful people or people who have suffered in different social structures.
We do not make the dark moments go away by refusing to speak about those pieces of our past, present or future. I refuse to believe that I am a lesser person because I am transgender, or queer, or mentally ill, or any other piece of my identity that is frequently flagged as “inappropriate content” in these banned books lists. I am not trans, or queer, or mentally ill or any of these things because of the books I read, but I did eventually grow into a happy, well-adjusted person in part because of the books I’ve read.