Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Problems with Book Censoring

            Books are challenged all the time, and this does not mean that the books are successfully banned or censored. Book censorship goes under two categories: curriculum-based or school-library-based. If a book is censored under the curriculum based system, the book must be found to be educationally unsuitable and the maturity of the book must be analyzed. If a book is being banned from a school library, it cannot be banned simply because the board doesn’t agree with the contents. In the Supreme Court case Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the Court made a decision pertaining to book ban attempts. The Court stated that school boards have most of the power when it comes to what books to have in the library, but they did not have the right to do so in a politically biased way. The Court stressed that the Constitution did allow for the suppression of ideas and therefore it is illegal to ban books based on a political bias or individual distaste (Brenyo). Book censoring should be made an illegal practice because the reasons for censoring have essentially turned into certain groups controlling what they want children to read based on their own interpretations and beliefs.
Image from Student Who Still Have Souls
Alison DePollo states:
"The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press... according to their [American Library Association's] Library Bill of Rights, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community... Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation”" (DePollo).
DePollo goes on to explain that the ambiguity of the term free speech creates a large problem in the debate over the censoring of books. The ambiguity of the term free speech makes the process  harder to stifle. It is harder to stifle because what one person may constitute as free speech, someone else may see it as too much exposure. Some feel that we should not be exposed to everything just because we can.
Image from YA Love 
              Parents incessantly attempt to ban books that they don’t see fit for their children; if the parents cannot successfully remove the book from a school curriculum or library, they attempt to censor the book. Parents are becoming increasingly worried that the books their children are reading are inappropriate for their age group. Parents say that they are “protecting their families values” by not allowing their children to read a certain book.  According to DePollo, parents attempt to ban books when the book has many references to witch craft and occult. An example of a highly controversial book of this genre is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (DePollo).

Image from ParrishBooks
        There are many other reasons books are challenged as well. Some parents feel that certain books are promoting “anti-family” values and violence (e.g. The Hunger Games). Also, Media Literacy states that some parents and scholars feel that certain books use words that are inappropriate for a younger group of students (e.g. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). As parents, they may have the power to control what their child read, but that power, if it exists, needs to stop in their home. It is unacceptable for parents to bring this power into a public setting. Books should only be removed from a school library when the plot and language are intended for older groups.
            Some books are put are under review and they may be re-released in an edited form. Most of the books that are challenged make it onto American Library Association’s “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” (the list can be downloaded at Many of the books on the list are of the fantasy or the occult genre. Alison Depollo states, “In the 1980s and earlier, most book challenges were about sexuality, and foul language. To make matters worse, the differences in what the definition of fantasy is differs extremely from one group to another” (DePollo). She is stating that the reason for books get challenged fluctuates with the decade and that what one person defines as made-up, someone else may see it as directions on how to live their life.
Image from Library Garden
            In Book Banning, Ronnie Lankford states that under censorship methods of our century, schools cannot be free in an intellectual way.  Parents and group are always challenging books for one reason or another. Parents are often challenging books with themes of: war, violence, death, famine, etc (Lankford). But aren’t these topics prevalent in our history? Aren’t the topics being discussed at school often time just as vulgar as the themes in some of the challenged books?  Is learning that the Nazi Regime was responsible for the execution of 6 million Jewish Europeans any better than reading about a fictional dystopia where the Capitol forces children to fight to the death as a reminder of who is in power? Most would think not, because the book is not real. It did not happen. It was entirely made up by an author who had an idea and went with it. The same cannot be said about the Holocaust. Therefore, parents attempting to censor fiction books run a high risk of damaging the learning process.
            Lankford also states that "reading is one of the only ways to enrich the imaginations of children." He argues that children cannot be told to think critically when the textbooks they are forced to read do not demonstrate critical thinking themselves (Lankford) ; Peter DeWitt argues that textbooks are often told from the point of view of the “winners.” Kids often turn to books to escape reality. Novels have the ability to get children to get involved so deeply that they feel they are personally involved in the plot. With books, children can feel love, grief, hate, etc. So why are parents gettings so huffy about books? Why are they pushing them to read textbooks that present a painfully one-sided recount of history? Are the textbooks at school teaching students to only care about the winners, to never care about the losers and perhaps teaching them to think with a narrow mind? If the answer is yes, it would seem that parents have a lot more to worry about than a fictitious book that may be perceived as inappropriate.
Huckleberry Finn
            An excellent example of a book being challenged because it makes some people uncomfortable would be Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in 1885. The book was set during the time of slaves and very blatant racism. In the book, Jim (a slave) is often referred to by the “n-word.” For the time period of this book, this word was very common way to refer to a person of color. Two scholars, however, are editing the entire book and replacing every n-word with slave. The censorship of such a timeless classic has started quite a debate.  
Mark Shultz of Publishers Weekly interviewed Alan Gribben, one of the scholars editing the book, and he feels that the n-word is unacceptable for an academic setting. Gribben stated that the editing of the book was not to make Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer “colorblind” but it will be a way to  tear down the unnecessary barrier keeping readers from enjoying the book. It is fact that African-Americans in the old South were called the n-word. The n-word is a part of our country’s history and our history cannot simply be edited out because it makes some people uncomfortable to read. 
Image from ANU News
          Two African-American scholars gave their opinion on the issue to BlackVoiceNews. Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins said he believes removing the "n-word" will make the book more understandable for today's school children and he believes that the book will be more useful in a classroom setting. He says Twain's slurs actually help Americans face the issue of racism. How is rewriting the past in a false light helpful to America’s youth? It is unacceptable to believe that we can censor out the parts of history some people may find uncomfortable. In a similar light, Micahela Angela Davis, a former editor at Essence magazine, said that the edited version of Huckleberry Finn is censorship of literature and of history, and it puts our democracy in danger.  Morehouse College's David Wall Rice was quoted in CBS saying "That word meant something. That word means something."
Image from Twitter
           Can a word that means so much in the history of our country simply be deleted? For some people, however, Huck Finn taught them the meaning and context of the n-word. Huck Finn taught them not to say the word because it was offensive (see tweet on right). How are children supposed to understand that the n-word is offensive? It’s not necessarily something that is reviewed in history class. By taking out the n-word from Huck Finn, the people editing the book are exhibiting the fact that they are challenging the book in a biased manner. One reaction on Twitter to the editing Twain's book was overwhelmingly negative. Take out the n-word, they wrote, and " have to take the holocaust out of Anne Frank and the adultery out of 'The Scarlet Letter.’” By editing this book, the scholars are attempting to alter the course of history. Racism was real, slavery was once very popular and the n-word was very commonplace. This being said, it is unreasonable for Huck Finn to be edited just because some people feel uncomfortable with the language used in it. This is a very good example of the views of few affecting everyone who reads the book; editing the book is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights. It is a violation because the background and origin of this book are being grossly violated by a small group of people.
The Hunger Games
Image from Scholastic
            Another example of book censorship is Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games trilogy. This triolgy has just recently gotten a lot of attention. Many parents are arguing that the book has themes that are too old for younger children. (It’s for young adults…and that doesn’t include 5th graders). The American Library Association reported that the young-adult trilogy was the No. 3 most-challenged work in U.S. libraries last year. The plot of the book is that there is a Capitol and there are 12 districts. Each district is expected to provide two tributes for the “Hunger Games.” In the Hunger Games, the 24 tributes fight to the death until only one tribute remains standing. It is only expected that a plot where children are fighting to the death would be challenged by parents because it is too violent. Many parents have also found the main character, Katniss Everdeen, to be promoting anti-family values. The complaints got worse when the movie came out. Jessica Grabert of PopBlend was able to obtain a quote from Barbara Jones of ALA. Jones stated the book was claimed as anti-ethnic because "people were saying someone was dark-skinned in the book, but not in the film, or dark-skinned in the film and not in the book.”
Image from JW Wartick
           Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience gives her opinion on the banning of this book as well. She claims that reading novels like the Hunger Games helps children build "empathy muscles." She goes on to say that this book does contain violence that may not be appropriate for a younger audience. She encourages parents to exercise caution before letting their child read it, because simply banning the book rarely helps. Pappas makes some very intriguing points. Children can learn to relate to other people and feel bad for them when reading a book. Children can become so engrossed in a book that they feel they are in the book. It is agreeable that parents need to exercise caution when allowing their children to read this book because it does contain violence. Banning this book will do very little to keep children from reading it.
           According to Jeffrey Bloomer of The Slatest, the Hunger Games was number five on the list of most challenged library books in 2011; and in 2012, it became the third most challenged book. This book trilogy is definitely not age appropriate for elementary school students, but it may be better understood by children 14 and up. While the challenges for this book are still coming forward, it is safe to say that this book is meant for an older audience. The parents that are challenging this book are mainly angry with the violence in the book. Suzanne Collins responded that she was not surprised because the books do contain high levels of violence. According to the American Library Association, this book was challenged and presented to the Goffstown, New Hampshire school board in 2010 because one parent said the books was giving her eleven year old daughter nightmares. Well that’s not surprising because she’s eleven, not seventeen. It is not surprising that children won’t be able to understand the futuristic dystopian society created by Collins. It should be up to the parent to decide whether their child can handle the plot of the Hunger Games and it should not be banned because some parents find there to be too much violence, anti-family or anti-ethnic aspects of the book disturbing. In compliance with Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, this book cannot be banned due to one individual’s distaste with the content. Parents need to exercise good judgement when deciding whether or not their child may read this book.
 Works Cited
Brenyo, Michael. "[Censored]: Book Banning In The US Education System." Journal of
            Law & Education 40.3 (2011): 541-549. Education Research Complete. Web. 30 
           Apr. 2012.
DePollo, Alison. "Banned And Challenged Books: Fantasy And The Occult." Tennessee
Libraries 61.1(2011): 4. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.
Lankford, Ronald D. Book Banning. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2008. Print.