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Bourke’s Banned Bookshelf: So you want to ban a book?

A world with book censorship is one I don't want to live in. Join me this month in my quest to read frequently banned and challenged books.

Row of books standing on a desk
Sept. 18-24, 2022 is Banned Books Week. The list of frequently banned and challenged books contains titles many people might not anticipate.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch
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Imagine a world where Harry Potter never defeated Voldemort, Atticus Finch never defended Tom Robinson, Katniss Everdeen never sacrificed herself for her sister and Holden Caulfield kept his thoughts to himself.

Theresa Bourke headshot

For those who enjoy traveling to another world with the turn of a page and getting lost in fantasy realms for a few hours, that thought is terrifying.

For those who like the simple freedom of choosing which kinds of media they consume, that thought is horrifying.

And for bookworms like me, it’s just sad.

To me, books are an escape, an adventure and a learning experience. Sometimes I need to forget about the real world for a little while, and sometimes I want to feel more educated on a specific topic. So the idea of having others decide that I can’t read certain books is maddening.

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Sept. 18-24 marks this year’s Banned Books Week. Put on by the Banned Books Week Coalition and sponsored by organizations like the American Library Association, the seven-day period is meant to celebrate the freedom to read and bring awareness to censorship efforts.

And those efforts are everywhere.

In June, I attended a webinar about banned and challenged books sponsored by the Minnesota Association of Library Friends. Sheila DeChantal, president of the Friends of the Brainerd Public Library, gave the presentation and opened it in an interesting way that really stuck with me.

She asked viewers to write down some of their favorite books and authors. Two of the first things I wrote down were Harry Potter and John Green. Those not familiar with John Green might recognize titles like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Looking For Alaska” or “Paper Towns,” all books of his made into movies and TV shows in the last decade.

The idea behind the exercise was to show that at least one title or author everyone wrote down would likely crop up later in the presentation on a banned or challenged book list. I was prepared for the Harry Potter series to be on that list, but John Green’s inclusion threw me for a loop.

And that was the point.

Oftentimes, when people think of banned books, they often think of vulgar or sexually explicit material. While books like that have certainly been banned and challenged throughout history, many others fall into a much different category.

Example 1: The dictionary. You read that right. Starting in 1976, the American Heritage Dictionary was removed from school libraries in Anchorage, Alaska, and Cedar Lake, Indiana, because of “objectionable language.”

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Example 2: “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. The children’s classic was banned from a California school in 1989 because it was believed to portray the logging industry in a poor light.

Example 3: “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. In 2006, a Kansas school banned Charlotte’s Web because “talking animals are blasphemous and unnatural.”

Example 4: “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. The irony of all ironies. Bradbury’s tale about a dystopian future where books are banned and burned is one of the most frequently challenged books. The novel was challenged in Texas in 2006 for going against religious beliefs because a Bible was among the books burned. There were also complaints of “dirty talk.”

Every time a book is taken out of a specific school or library, it becomes a banned book. Every time someone advocates for a book’s removal, it becomes a challenged book.

I had my own personal experience with book banning at a young age. I can recall back in about second or third grade when one of my friends was making her way through the Harry Potter series, which wasn’t yet completed but was wildly popular at the time. But then came the day when there was a complaint that I can only assume dealt with the idea of books about witchcraft being in a Catholic school and the Harry Potter series was no longer in the school library.

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Maybe removing a book from just one school library doesn’t seem like a huge thing. I mean, there are plenty of other bookstores and libraries where it’s accessible, right? Well, not for kids who don’t have the money to purchase a book or the transportation to go to their local library. The school library is accessible. Kids are in the building every day and usually encouraged to check out and read the materials. And for some, it’s the only access they have to books.

There’s a difference between parents monitoring what their kids are reading and parents trying to control what other people’s kids are reading.

Writing the Harry Potter series is said to have helped author J.K. Rowling through her battle with depression. Many fans will tell you escaping to a magical world for but a few hours helped them through tough times.

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And the same can be said of so many other books — books that people might not have access to with the various challenges and bans happening in the world. And that’s why bans are so harmful.

For Brainerd Public Library Director Laurel Hall, fighting bans is about making sure everyone can relate to something.

“An important thing to recognize is that a large portion of the books that tend to be challenged are ones that feature people in marginalized communities, and so we want to make sure that everybody in our community is represented in our library,” Hall told me.

Half of the Top 10 most challenged books in 2021, according to the American Library Association, were challenged because of LGBTQIA+ content.

“So it’s really important to us that we’re reflective of our community and providing the materials that our community is desiring,” Hall said.

To take that idea a step further, for DeChantal it’s literally about saving lives.

As hard as it is for some people to understand books that defy their belief systems or trigger them in some other way, those same books might be speaking to someone who desperately needs a friendly voice. A character might be so relatable that someone realizes they aren’t truly alone. And that realization might be lifesaving.

Throughout September, I’m making it my mission to read books that appear on banned and challenged lists, and I encourage those who like to read to do the same. Find something you wouldn’t normally pick up. Find something that has been criticized over and over again.

Noted American librarian Jo Godwin once said, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

I urge you, readers, to go find something offensive.

Books under fire

Top 10 most banned and challenged books: 2010-19

  1. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.
  2. Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey.
  3. “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher.
  4. “Looking for Alaska” by John Green.
  5. “George” by Alex Gino.
  6. “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.
  7. “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier.
  8. “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James.
  9. Internet Girls (series) by Lauren Myracle.
  10. “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.

Top 10 most banned and challenged books: 2000-09

  1. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling.
  2. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
  3. “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier.
  4. “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.
  5. “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck.
  6. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.
  7. Scary Stories (series) by Alvin Schwartz.
  8. His Dark Materials (series) by Philip Pullman.
  9. Internet Girls (series) by Lauren Myracle.
  10. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky.

Lists are according to the American Library Association.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: BOOKS
Opinion by Theresa Bourke
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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