The 27th annual Banned Books Week kicks off this Saturday, September 26th. Sponsored by the American Booksellers Association; the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; the American Library Association; the American Society of Journalists and Authors; the Association of American Publishers; and the National Association of College Stores, and endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, Banned Books Week celebrates freedom of expression and democracy. In a recent press release, ALA President Camila Alire emphasizes the importance of increasing public awareness about banned books, "Censorship has no place in a free society. Part of living in a democracy means respecting each other's differences and the right of all people to choose for themselves what they and their families read."
Some notable book challenges in the past few months indicate that without the efforts of teachers, librarians, authors, and advocacy groups, attempts to ban books would succeed in many communities:
• The Puerto Rican government recently banned five books from the public school curriculum, citing concerns about the "coarse language and vulgar content" in the books. Writers, artists, journalists, and professors protested the government's decision by reading excerpts of the banned books in front of the Department of Education headquarters in Hato Rey.
• This spring, community members requested the removal of materials from the West Bend Community Memorial Library, claiming that specific YA books like Baby Be Bop by Francesca Lia were "obscene." After heated exchanges between groups on both sides of the issue--including demands to burn certain books and force the mayor's resignation--four members of the Library Board were removed. In June, the new board unanimously voted to retain the materials in the Young Adult section of the library without restricting access.
• The YA books Crank and Glass were banned from a Norman, Oklahoma middle school library after author Ellen Hopkins donated a free school appearance. The school district superintendent also cancelled Hopkin's visit. In response, Hopkins penned "Manifesto," a poem about censorship, which is featured on the official Banned Book Week site.
• This week, award-winning author, Laurie Halse Anderson responded to three recent challenges to her books, Speak and Twisted, showing that these provocative works positively impact teens by posting excerpts from readers' letters.
In addition to young adult titles, hundreds of books written for younger readers attract censors' attention, including beloved favorites like Where the Wild Things Are and the Harry Potter series.
While I denounce censorship, I realize that teachers and school librarians must use discretion when offering books to young readers. As public servants, we must acknowledge the personal beliefs of the families we serve. Parents have the right to determine what books their child may or may not read. I dislike protests where a few parents' values potentially limit every reader's access to controversial books, though. To prevent book challenges and parent complaints before they occur, consider these criteria:
• Provide above level books on a case-by-case basis. Every year, I have sixth grade students who read significantly beyond their grade level. Finding appropriate, interesting books for advanced readers is challenging. I keep a small shelf of young adult (YA) titles behind my desk and only offer these books after speaking with a child's parents.
• Familiarize yourself with books and authors before placing titles in your library. I try to read every book before I provide it to my students, but this is not always reasonable. If a book is labeled as YA, I insist on reading it first. With grade level titles, I read reviews before purchasing books. I prefer to know when a book contains questionable content before a parent or student tells me.
• Avoid assigning specific books. I believe that the main reason I have received few complaints from parents or administrators about books over the years, is that I never require students to read a particular book. I expect students to read books from specific genres, but students control which titles they choose to read. If a child's parents express concern over any book their child selects, I help the student choose another one.
• Read every book you plan to read with students before using it. Before adding books to recommended or required lists, assigning titles as whole class novels, or sharing a book as a read aloud--READ IT FIRST!
• Select books for your library that receive favorable reviews from industry sources. In some cases, showing parents the literary merit of a book alleviates concerns about the content and provides evidence that the book is well-regarded in educational and literary circles.
• Decide now what you will do if anyone questions a book in your library. What support can you expect from your campus administrator? If a parent challenges a book, what policies does your district employ for responding to complaints? How important is that controversial book to your classroom instruction? What will you say to parents if they express concerns? Do not wait until a complaint occurs before creating a plan.
While public schools and libraries must consider the needs and values of our local communities, we also bear responsibility for representing the values of American democracy. During Banned Book Week (and every week), we honor two foundational beliefs--our rights to speak freely and make our own choices. We must safeguard these rights for children until they can exercise and demand these rights for themselves.
**In serious cases of censorship, teachers, librarians, and booksellers can receive help from The Kids' Right to Read Project, which provides resources and public support.