Photograph by Emma Ford

39th annual Banned Books Week combats censorship in literature

From Sept. 26 to Oct. 2, Portland celebrated National Banned Books Week. A commemoration of literature that has faced censorship and challenged its readers, the theme this year was “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us.” Virtual events from the Banned Book Week Coalition featured speakers such as Gene Luen Yang (“Shang-Chi,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender”), Jason Reynolds (“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” “Miles Morales — Spiderman”) and a Twitter chat with Laurie Halse Anderson (“Speak,” “Chains”). Banned Books Week Coalition also named New York Times Bestseller Jason Reynolds as their honorary chair, whose works “All American Boys” and “Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, And You,” were among 2020’s most challenged books.

Books have long faced criticism rooted in their ability to communicate new ideas, especially to children. Famous banned books include “1984” by George Orwell, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky. Challenges to these books question whether they are appropriate for young readers and if their ideas could be considered incendiary. 

There are also books often banned less for their social message and more over whether they are worth reading — “Captain Underpants” by Dav Pilkey, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney and “Bad Kitty” by Nick Bruel are among this group (it is worth noting that “Captain Underpants” has also been critiqued as containing potentially offensive imagery).

Historically, books considered controversial have faced country-wide bans. For example, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley was banned in Ireland for strong language, perceived anti-religious comments and depictions of non-traditional families. “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov was banned in France and the U.K. for its use of pedophilia to satirize American values. Books have even faced criminal charges, such as the watershed obscenity trial over the uncensored publication of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence in 1960.

Book challenges happen every year in public libraries and schools around the country as books continue to defy social norms. Prisons also see high rates of book banning, limiting the opportunities for prisoners to expand their horizons like everyone else. Lists of current disputes over banning books in Oregon, as tracked by the American Library Association (ALA), were publicized by the Banned Book Coalition, Multnomah County Library and Powell’s Books Blog. 

“When free people, through judicial procedure, segregate some of their own, they incur the responsibility to provide humane treatment and essential rights,”  the ALA’s declaration on A Prisoners’ Right to Read explains. “Among these is the right to read and to access information. The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of intellectual freedom — the right to read, to write, and to think — diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society.”

Since we have always been told not to judge a book by its cover, why do our schools and libraries continue to do so? Books are often banned unfairly, or for reasons we might not expect. Banned Books Week may be over this year, but next time you go to your local library or bookstore, look closer. Many stores, including Powell’s Books, have displays year round of famous banned books. Pick one up, you could be surprised by what you learn. 

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