Banned Books Week: Celebrating the controversial

Banned Books Week at Valley Bookseller, Stillwater
The Banned Books Week display at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn. features everything from Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" to "Hop on Pop" from Dr. Seuss.
Courtesy Valley Bookseller

Librarians and booksellers spend their whole year steeped in books, but come the last week of September, many take the time to celebrate a notorious group of them: the banned books.

Banned Books Week started in 1982 as an effort to raise awareness about censorship in schools and libraries. It's sponsored by the American Library Association, the Comic Book League Defense Fund and other prominent literary organizations. It's also endorsed by the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.

Favorite banned book: "Whale Talk" by Chris Crutcher

According to the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, there were 311 reported challenges to books last year — but that's likely only a fraction of actual incidents. According to Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, only 20 percent of librarians said they always report challenges.

In the last month alone, two award-winning bestsellers were challenged by parents in stories that made national headlines. In Tallahassee, Fla., "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night" was pulled from Lincoln High School's summer reading list after parents complained about obscenities and "atheistic beliefs" in the text.

In Tennessee's Knox County, a mother of a high school sophomore is lobbying for "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" to be removed from the local school system entirely. The nonfiction book describes the groundbreaking medical innovations that stem from Lacks' cells, after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The mother's complaint called the book "pornographic."

For every challenge that comes in, there is a librarian or bookseller ready to champion the books that draw controversy. Banned Books Week focuses those efforts.

"Banned Books Week is my favorite week of the whole year," says Kathy Adams, the children's book specialist at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn. "Seriously, it's better than Christmas."

Favorite banned book: "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

To celebrate the week, Valley Bookseller has organized displays of the most frequently challenged titles.

"Promoting books that have been banned or challenged shines a light on these attempts at censorship," said Adams. "It is an eye-opening experience for many."

Adams said that customers are often surprised by the books that appear on the displays — some of them are classics or childhood favorites.

"That one? Why?!" Adams said, imitating the outbursts she hears.

"Why" can be answered: Every year, the ALA categorizes the reasons challenged books make the list. The file for the most challenged book of last year, Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," reads:

Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence.

Additional reasons: "depictions of bullying"

Increasingly, Pekoll said, "the books that are challenged are ones that portray persons of color or who are gay or trans. Eight out of ten books on the 2014 Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged books raise issues of diversity and inclusion or include diverse characters."

The rate of diverse books being challenged is significantly disproportionate to the number of diverse books being published, Pekoll noted.

While the number of diverse books being challenged is increasing, the total number of challenges is not. Pekoll notes that challenges have decreased since the 1990s, which may be in part due to the internet.

"The Internet has helped tremendously to raise awareness of cases of censorship. Many people believe that censorship doesn't happen anymore. Now we see when and where it happens," Pekoll said.

In a novel-worthy twist, the attention that books get for being challenged or banned actually helps them reach new and larger audiences, through displays like those at Valley Bookseller.

"We are basically a country built by rebels," said Adams. "When someone tells us 'you can't read that,' we naturally pick it up and read it."

The 2014 Top 10 List of Frequently Challenged Books

1) "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie Reasons: Anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: "depictions of bullying."

2) "Persepolis," by Marjane Satrapi Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: "politically, racially, and socially offensive," "graphic depictions."

3) "And Tango Makes Three," Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: "promotes the homosexual agenda."

4) "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: "contains controversial issues."

5) "It's Perfectly Normal," by Robie Harris Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: "alleges it child pornography."

6) "Saga," by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples Reasons: Anti-Family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.

7) "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence

8) "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," by Stephen Chbosky Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: "date rape and masturbation."

9) "A Stolen Life," Jaycee Dugard Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.

10) "Drama," by Raina Telgemeier Reasons: Sexually explicit.

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