Perhaps instead of Banned Books Week, we should call this Challenged Books Week. On Thursday’s NCTE@CSU Meeting, I learned about how often parents challenge books found in a library, a school, a publishing house, or even a Barnes & Noble.
Thankfully, Jeremy Wolfe – a Community Business Development Manager from Barnes & Nobel and the guest speaker for the evening – informed us that however challenged they may be, Barnes & Noble (B&N) does not support attempts at censorship*. Their guiding principle at B&N is that they will offer a diverse and extensive selection, and they will continue to offer their customers freedom of choice. Their censorship policy says that while they do not personally endorse every book they sell, they do endorse their customers right to choose what they want buy.
If there is a demand for a book – and if it’s banned, there usually is – then B&N will continue to sell it. As a matter of fact, if a publisher formally recalls a book, copies usually fly off the shelves before the bookstore even gets the request. “All the conspiracy theorists want it,” Wolfe joked. Raina Telgemeier’s YA book Drama is one of the best selling novels in the store and ranks tenth on 2014’s Most Challenged list. Laughing, Wolfe remarked that, “Since we’re mainly focused on profits, we’re allowed to be a little insensitive to niche complaints.”
But here’s the confusing part: what’s the difference between being challenged and banned? And how does it keep the book from readers? It’s much harder to ban a book through the legal system of the United States, as it must be proven to cause real and significant cultural harm; only Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl have been legally banned. It’s far easier to challenge a book on a per state or per community basis, restricting access to potential readers by changing availability or excluding it from schools and libraries. Most of the data collected is on books that have been challenged, since they cannot be banned nationwide.
Interestingly, books are most often challenged for sexually explicit material and least often for violence and homosexuality. Children’s sexual education books are often challenged on the grounds of child pornography for their illustrations. “It really reveals what bothers us as a culture,” Wolfe notes. “Often, the reasons books are challenged are two sides of the same coin.” For example, the top challenged book of 2014 – Sherman Alexi’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – emphasizes in its classroom teaching guide that it promotes family values and multiculturalism, but it is most often challenged on the grounds of being anti-family and culturally insensitive. Speaking of cultural insensitivity, there’s another apparent trend in the numbers: Caucasian authors get a bit of “buffer time” compared to authors from diverse backgrounds. Alexi’s book was challenged in three years, whereas it took seven years for challenges to John Green’s Looking for Alaska.
Parents make almost 50% of challenges, with patrons accounting for 10% and administrators accounting for 9.5%. Librarians say that if can convince a parent to come in and discuss their problems with, say, Walter the Farting Dog, that’s half the battle. Most are able to have a dialogue and the challenges are dropped. However, if a parent progresses to a written complaint, the next step is often a rally for a public outcry.
No matter who is attempting to censor literature, whether it be a parent or administrator, both The Office of Intellectual Freedom and the NCTE offer resources to help librarians and teachers. Pam Coke, the Undergraduate Coordinator for English Education, pointed out that the NCTE even offers legal council for teachers dealing with challenges to classroom books.
“Banning books is a means of control. It’s all about power. Censorship is about fear,” Wolfe noted. “At the end of the day, it’s about trusting other people to hear information that they might disagree with.”
All statistics are from the Office of Intellectual Freedom. Please visit http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks for more information.
*Barnes & Noble has banned one book from their shelves: a how-to guide to for male pedophiles that arose during the advent of self-publishing.
To find out more about Banned Books Week, visit the official website.