This week we’re going to be doing something a bit different on WhatchYAreading. Instead of reviewing whichever book currently strikes our fancy , we’ll be reaching into the archives a bit for a very specific reason: to stand up for intellectual freedom.

What prompted our little rebellion is that it happens to be the last week of September, which means one thing: Banned Books Week. Every year the American Library Association (ALA) draws attention to banned or challenged books to bring awareness of the danger and extent of censorship in America.

Traditionally, I think we all have a similar idea of what censorship means- someone revoking our First Amendment rights, but we don’t always know why or who is  doing it. Even more so, I think most people would be highly surprised as to what books are banned or challenged – for example, half of my Catholic high school’s reading list is on the list of books most often banned. Banned Books week isn’t about pointing fingers though, because there would be too many go around. The reasons are as diverse as the books that are challenged: sexual promiscuity, politically incorrect terminology, foul language, drug and alcohol abuse, witchcraft, devil worship, communism, non-rewritten history, overtly religious overtones, homosexuality, violence, and the catch-all “That book is trash!”

At times, the challenging or banning of a book can read like a witch-hunt. Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank, Glass, Impulse, Burned and Identical which follow a meth-addicted teen through the tragic pitfalls of that lifestyle (written in response to her own daughter’s struggle) had her invitation rescinded to be one of the authors featured at the Humble Teen Lit Festival this year because her content was “not suitable” for teens.  In this case both parents and librarians were up in arms. While her topics, ranging from crystal meth to teen prostitution and suicide are highly controversial, they neither glorify nor encourage the lifestyle.

As with all things, there are naturally two sides to every story, which  as a young adult site we can understand. Authority figures have to ask whether young adults should have access to books within a library that use racial slurs (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple), have sexually promiscuous characters (Brave New World by Alduous Huxley, Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway) use foul language (A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger) condone witchcraft (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling) or be are anti-religious or purporting religious overtones (the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer for both reasons).  Should teenagers be able to read about other teens who have experienced sexual violence, (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) are dealing with the aftermaths of suicide (Looking for Alaska by John Green) or coming to terms with homosexuality (Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky)? Should teens only be exposed to novels that paint the world as a beautiful trouble-free place, where no one experiences hardships and where everyone is the same?

All the books in parentheses are books that have been banned or challenged from community and school libraries or reading lists for those reasons. Many of them are considered classic works of literature or are one of the most well-loved YA novels published, and what they all have in common is that they bring about awareness. Below the depths of the Harry Potter series, (which is the number one most banned book of the last decade) lurks an ancient battle between good and evil and that hazy grey area in between. It uses wizardry as a euphemism to discuss race relations, poverty, individuality and courage. John Green isn’t telling people to kill themselves. Laurie Halse Anderson isn’t writing soft-core porn, as Wesley Scroggins, a Missouri State University professor, proclaimed this year about her novel Speak which follows a teenager who was raped. (Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler was also targeted by Scroggins for a grief stricken teenager attending parties and using condoms.)  What they are doing is building awareness so that when, not if, teens are exposed to these issues in the real world they have an avenue available to them that discusses it. Yes, an argument can be made that by exposing teens to controversial topics it could cross the line and glorify and purport them – it is the same rationale  that led to ratings on video games and TV shows, and is why YA books are generally assigned an age range of appropriateness.

At the heart of the matter, these challenged books often tell the story of the past, present and future of the world. Reading Richard Wright’s Native Son, about an African American growing up in the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s brings an understanding of diversity, race relations, poverty and paints a non-Norman Rockwell picture of American history. To remove it from reading lists because of racial slurs is to rewrite history, and when history is forgotten, it is repeated. Even the most infamously banned non-YA books, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and  Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf are primary sources to the world’s history. Without them it would be near impossible to explain Europe’s revolutions and both World Wars from the 1800s through the 1950s. Banning them erases the context of almost a century’s worth of history.

By banning or challenging novels it  erases the comfort of relating. I have often written on this site about how sometimes a novel comes along at the exact moment in your life that you need it. Something inside it touches something inside you and you suddenly feel less alone in the world. One of my  favorite quotes comes from the British  play and movie The History Boys by an aging history professor which particularly personifies this notion:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

This summarizes why we read and why WhatchYAreading is standing up for Banned Books Week this year. We believe in freedom of speech but more than anything else, we believe in that comforting hand that literature provides. It’s the knowledge that we are not alone in this world; that others have suffered and thought or done the same things we have. It’s not condoning “bad” behavior, it’s acknowledging that it exists instead of sweeping it under a shameful rug.

Because we believe in the right to read, we will be highlighting our favorite books that have been banned or challenged this week. In doing so we hope to draw attention and encourage others to speak out for them as well.

As part of this, we’re having a giveaway! Two actually. One randomly selected reader will win Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer. Another randomly selected reader will win the four novels we feature this week. To enter, all you have to do is comment on this entry and tell us your favorite controversial novel or why you hate censorship. Tweeting about this entry will get you another entry so long as you let us know your Twitter name. Commenting on the other entries this week will get you an additional entry for each comment (one per post please!). This giveaway will end at midnight CST this Saturday (10/2), and we’ll announce our winners on Sunday.

If you would like to learn more about Banned Books Week or how you can get involved, check out these sites:

ALA’s About Banned & Challenged Books

List of Banned or Challenged Teen Books on Amazon

10 Best Ways to Celebrate Banned Books Week

“Mundie Moms” speak out about Speak and Banned Books Week

This entry was posted on Monday, September 27th, 2010 at 10:30 am and is filed under Feature, blog, giveaway. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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