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It’s Banned Books Week!

And what exactly are you reading?

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Friday, October 2, 2009 -- If you answer The Kite Runner, the acclaimed novel by Khaled Hosseini about life in Afghanistan, then you’re turning the pages of one of the top-ten most challenged books of 2008, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

Or, if you’re enjoying the children’s book And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, the charming (and true) story of two Central Park Zoo penguins – both male – who raise a baby chick, you’re reading the most-banned book of the past three years.

 NEA members have a long history of standing up to censorship and protecting the rights of students and teachers to use books like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in the classroom.

On their side have been numerous state and federal courts that have consistently ruled that the school library is a “special” place, a “marketplace of ideas” where “students must always remain free to inquire, to study, and to evaluate.” To hold otherwise, the Supreme Court has ruled, would “strangle the free mind at its source.”

Nancy Gingras, a Louisiana school librarian, still remembers defending John Stienbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the frequently taught story of two migrant ranch workers during the Great Depression, from two hostile school board members in the 1980s.  At the time, Gingras was president of the local school librarians’ organization and she spoke against the banning.

It wasn’t hard to find scholarly articles that defended the novella’s banning, she said. “But it was most fun,” she recalls, “to end my presentation by quoting the end of the book, ‘Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?’”|

And Leighia Martinez, a Nevada kindergarten teacher, also remembers when her principal ruled that only his preferred version of the Bible could be allowed in their school library. With some colleagues, she stepped up to convince him that various theological books should be included.

“It’s hard to allow the choices for all, while protecting your own, but I always support choice,” she said.

Often times, the efforts of book-burners backfire anyway. Want to convince more kids they should read Twilight or the Gossip Girl series? Complain some more about the salacious content of the latter and the occult representations in the first. Banning a book is just a great way to get kids reading it, say many teachers.

 Meanwhile, despite the court’s rulings and the enthusiastic support by educators for smart choices for kids, the challenges continue to mount.  In 2008, there were at least 513 attacks on library and school shelves, but likely many hundreds more that went unreported, according to ALA.

 To see some of those challenges, check out the interactive map at Banned Books Week. Some of them include:

  • In 2007, a parent objected to the use of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in the classroom and filed a complaint with the local sheriff, saying it was “harmful to minors.” Because of that complaint, the teacher was placed on paid, administrative leave.

  • In Loudoun County, Virginia, in 2008, And Tango Makes Three, the story of two male penguins who raise a penguin chick, was placed on restricted access in all elementary school libraries, after a parent called it an attack on heterosexuals. 

  • In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in 2007, a parent objected to To Kill a Mockingbird, saying it would upset Black children.
  • In Raceland, Louisiana, in 2008, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War was removed for violating the district’s policy on cursing.


Interactive map of banned books