By Beth Clark • September 24, 2018
At the 1982 American Booksellers Association (ABA) BookExpo America trade show in Anaheim, California, attendees were greeted by towers of large, padlocked metal cages with 500+ challenged/banned books stacked inside them and a looming sign at the convention center entrance cautioning that the books were considered to be extremely dangerous by some. The exhibit was a huge success.
The Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982) Supreme Court case ruled that school officials couldn't ban library books simply because of their content, but the 1980s were a time of increased challenges and organized protests, so the ABA invited Office of Intellectual Freedom Director Judith Krug to join their new Banned Books Week initiative, hoping to springboard off BookExpo's success. It worked…libraries and stores created 'literary graveyards' and hosted read-outs that PBS and the New York Times covered, which led to mayors and governors across the US issuing official Banned Books Week proclamations.
Today, Banned Books Week reaches 2.8(ish) billion readers (including you—yay!), and with access to 13 million bargain-priced titles on ThriftBooks.com, you can collect and read all of the banned books your little heart desires.
Book challenges and bans are still a thing in modern day America, the difference between them being that a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials based on the objections of a person or group, whereas a ban is the actual removal of those materials. The books highlighted during Banned Books Week have been targeted for removal or restricted access in libraries and schools across the US, so part of what Banned Books Week celebrates is that thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read, the majority of the time, the books have remained available.
The short version of WHY books are challenged or banned is that most instances are fueled by religious beliefs, cultural diversity, and/or political differences. Interestingly, 46 of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century—the classics—have been the target of ban attempts, some multiple times. For example, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was actually burned by the East St. Louis Public library in 1939. Lest you think that's a thing of the past, so were Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (Drake, ND in 1973) and The Lord of the Rings (Alamagordo, NM in 2001).
So, who challenges books? According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, library patrons and parents make up the biggest percentage (42% and 32%, respectively), followed by school boards and administrations (14%), librarians and teachers (6%), political and religious groups (3%), elected officials (2%), and in a small number of cases (1%), students.
In 2017, 354 challenges were reported to the American Library Association, along with 91 public challenges, which typically come to light via local news sources. Those numbers may not seem all that scary until you consider that 82-97% of challenges are silent—an estimated 10,766 each year—and result in books being removed or restricted without ever being reported. And yep, it happens, which is why awareness is key to keeping titles accessible.
As you can see, adult fiction isn't the only genre that ends up in the censorship crosshairs—children's books and young adult titles are also recurrent contenders; some for obvious reasons, others not so much. Even seemingly benign textbooks come under fire on occasion. For additional books or information on Banned Books Week, visit bannedbooksweek.org. If you want to do more to fight censorship, you might consider donating to the Judith F. Krug Memorial Fund in honor of her 40 years of relentlessly working to protect the First Amendment. As always, happy reading!