Off the Shelf – The “C” Word

Listen here.

Dave Pilkey, author of the often-challenged Captain Underpants books, made a great little video about censorship:

According to Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee, “Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book.”

The topic of censorship is a tricky one because I have my own personal views which, basically, can be summed up like this: I think people should be able to read whatever in the heck they want…and that includes teenagers. I am a parent and I have teenagers who love to read. My son read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History when he was barely 14. Is there adult content, sure. Could we talk about it – absolutely.

The question that immediately springs to mind for me is: what are we so afraid of that we have to censor reading material? Personally, I believe that people should have access to all sorts of reading material without judgement or interference. That said, you won’t find Fifty Shades of Grey in my classroom library. For obvious reasons. When I am choosing books for my library I try to pick material with literary merit…

The Canadian Organization, Freedom to Read has a comprehensive (and honestly, funny,) timeline of books that have been banned dating back to 259-210 B.C.

It’s amazing what’s on that list – everything from Shakespeare (1788: Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned from the stage until 1820 — in deference to the insanity of the reigning monarch, King George III.) to Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books (1980s: During its examination of school learning materials, the London County Council in England banned the use of Beatrix Potter’s children’s classics The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from all London schools. The reason: the stories portrayed only “middle-class rabbits.”) And here’s one of my favourites: 1983: Members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank because it was “a real downer.” It was also challenged for offensive references to sexuality.

I thought I’d share with you three YA books that have been banned at one time or another in one place or another and which I think are worth reading:

part time indianOne of the most challenged book in the US is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

This is a National Book Award winner and I read it a couple years ago. Here’s the funny thing – acclaimed books, award winning books often make the banned books list as well.

This novel is, in part, based on the author’s own experiences growing up. It’s the story of Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, a fourteen year old Native American who lives on’ the rez’. He’s got a whole host of physical problems, ten teeth too many and a head that’s too big. He’s picked on a lot and says he’s a member of the “Black Eye of the Month Club.” But he’s funny and smart and it is almost impossible not to fall in love with him.

So, this book has been banned in multiple school districts in the States for being vulgar, making references to masturbation and using inappropriate language. Personally, I didn’t find it objectionable and I often recommend it to boys who aren’t particularly enthusiastic readers because it’s straight – up funny and also because Junior is an aspiring artist, it’s filled with drawings and doodles. I haven’t had a single kid tell me they didn’t like it.

ratsRats Saw God – Rob Thomas (not of Matchbox 20 fame, but of Veronica Mars fame and a former Journalism teacher)

This book is about a high school senior called Steve York who is pretty close to flunking out of school despite the fact that he’s super smart. This book was challenged because Steve smokes drugs, but the book hardly endorses drug use – it’s actually very much a coming of age story a la Catcher in the Rye (another books that has been challenged multiple times.) Anyway, Steve’s guidance counselor gives him one last chance to save his year- he has to write a 100 page paper about…anything…and ultimately Steve uses the writing to work through his issues. Clever book, terrific main character….positive messages for struggling teens.

eleanor and parkEleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell

So this was Ms. Rowell’s first novel and it caused a huge splash when it was published – partly because John Green wrote a glowing review and partly because it’s awesome – but it’s also been called “dangerously obscene” – which it is certainly not, unless maybe you don’t like 80s new wave music.

Eleanor is an awkward teenager who lives with her mother and step-father (who is a creep) and her younger siblings and Park is half Korean and comes from a stable, loving home and this novel is about friendship and love.

Interesting discussion with some Australian YA writers about banning books

Freedom to Read…

Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. – from the Freedom to Read site

I personally don’t believe in censorship; I’m a pro-choice chick all the way. I agree – there’s a lot of abhorrent crap out there, but my problem with censorship is who gets to decide whether it is or isn’t abhorrent crap. The closest I’ve come to questioning the merit of a book was reading about Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, a married couple responsible for the death of three young girls including Homolka’s sister.

Freedom to Read has a wonderful list of writing that has been banned over the ages including:

“George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede was attacked as the “vile outpourings of a lewd woman’s mind,” and the book was withdrawn from circulation libraries in Britain.

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (published in 1833) was threatened with banning by Boston’s district attorney unless the book was expurgated. The public uproar brought such sales of his books that Whitman was able to buy a house with the proceeds.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was banned by the governor of Hunan province in China because, he said, animals should not use human language and it was disastrous to put animals and humans on the same level.

D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of a trial in England, in which Penguin Books was prosecuted for publishing an obscene book. During the proceedings, the prosecutor asked: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?” Penguin won the case, and the book was allowed to be sold in England. A year earlier, the U.S. Post Office had declared the novel obscene and non-mailable. But a federal judge overturned the Post Office’s decision and questioned the right of the postmaster general to decide what was or was not obscene.”

And here’s a real shocker…”The U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, 2001,  passed by the American Congress in response to terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, gave the FBI power to collect information about the library borrowings of any U.S. citizen. The act also empowered the federal agency to gain access to library patrons’ log-ons to Internet Web sites—and protected the FBI from disclosing the identities of individuals being investigated.”

Read more about censored books here.

Here in Canada, the following books have been challenged at one point or another:

  • Margaret Laurence, The Diviners
  • J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
  • Rosamund Elwin, Asha’s Mums
  • Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women
  • Elizabeth Laird, A Little Piece of Ground
  • Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
  • John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter
  • Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

A full list of  material challenged in Canada can be found here.

Do you have personal feelings about censorship?