It’s easy to dismiss the banning of books as something that happened a long time ago. But, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not true. Pull up a map of books banned in the U.S. between 2007 and 2011 and all you see are drop pins of case after case after case of censorship.
And despite what you might assume, these books aren’t necessarily banned purely on the basis of “obscenity,” such as sexual imagery or violence. Unfortunately, it’s not just about old white men who hate sex (although, to be fair, a lot of the time, it is).
An author is never just an author; a book is never just a book. When books written by authors of color or featuring differently- abled protagonists are repeatedly challenged, it’s not just a coincidence. It parallels the way anyone who isn’t a white male in the United States is going to be repeatedly hazed, questioned, and put down.
The ALA’s 2015-2016 list of challenged/banned books included The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a young adult novel by Sherman Alexie about a teenager who grew up on a reservation making the adjustment to an all-white high school. It was challenged on the grounds of bestiality and pornography. The list also included The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a nonfiction book based on the life of the poor, black, unconsenting, woman whose cells were eventually used for a plethora of medical breakthroughs, like the polio vaccine and IVF research. This book was challenged for having too much graphic information.
On the surface, it’s easy to believe that people are just prudes. But if that were the case, what would explain the overwhelming lack of diversity in the books that don’t get challenged? Often, the complaints are thinly veiled, too. Another book on the 2015-2016 list, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about an autistic teenager, is challenged based on its promotion of atheism. Realistically, it’s about a fourteen-year-old solving the murder of a dog and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who remembers anything about atheism. And yet, rather than bring diversity into schools and libraries, it is shushed and shoved to the side.
What exactly does it mean for our children when 52% of banned books feature diverse content? With numbers that high and for minds that young, it’s implying that we shouldn’t just be banning the book, but the content too — and when the content is about them, things start to get dicey. Kate Messner, author of The Seventh Wish, wrote on her blog, “When we say ‘This book is inappropriate,’ we’re telling those children ‘your situation…your family…your life is inappropriate.” The roadblocks put in place in the publishing industry for diverse writers also contribute to why there are so few on your shelves, something various campaigns like We Need Diverse Books are trying to change.
On the flip side, is there a point where censorship is necessary? I know you’re all thinking about good old Milo Yiannopoulos right now so let’s get down to it. Our most hated homie has been at the center of a few censorship scandals, from getting his book pulled from Simon & Schuster to being effectively run off UC Berkeley’s campus. But is his kind of diversity of thought the kind we want to be protecting?
There is no short answer. For one, publishing houses drop clients all the time; it isn’t unheard of. Publishers are brands, and brands will drop clients who set a bad example for their image. The imprint of Simon & Schuster where his book was to be published was a conservative one, and his actions still were over the top. As for his appearance at Berkeley, while Yiannopoulos has the right to free speech, students have the right to free assembly to protest that speech. And, while the government can’t police any speech, schools don’t have to provide those texts or speakers. What it comes down to for me is this: is it hate speech? Then perhaps it shouldn’t be widely distributed (or frankly, distributed at all). If the work impedes on the rights of others to live fulfilling lives, it deserves to be relegated to the gutter. And even then, the text is still out there for those who seek it.
So where exactly do we fall on censorship in 2017? Books are still being challenged, but in a more under-the-radar way, and not everyone is open to seeing diversity in literature — one Tucson school district even dissolved an entire Mexican-American studies program and removed all the books that had been in its curriculum.
And yet, initiatives like Banned Books Week are growing bigger every year — 2016’s theme was actually “Celebrating Diversity” and 2017’s is “Our Right to Read” — so I’m hopeful that with some time and a little elbow grease, the challenges will grow few and far between, and all the different voices will finally shine through.