No Banned Books Week celebration

They’ve been popping up all over my reader all week, and I’m sure they’re all over yours too. Impossible not to notice them. I’m talking about references to the Banned Books Week. (If you don’t know what that is, do click through on that link and/or on the badge below. The issue is censorship, and I do feel that we should all be more aware of it.)

Banned Books Week badge by

Wonder why I didn’t take part in the celebration? I’ll tell you:

I do not agree with Banned Books Week.

There. I said it.

Now, before you bite my head off, let me say right from the start that I am not an advocate for censorship, not at all.

No Censorship badge by

I firmly believe in freedom of speech, which means that everybody has the right to say what they think, and to write it in a book, and to see their book published, and everybody has the right to buy and read those books, and to share them and talk about them.

Which is not yet the case in so many places. I assure you that I am well aware of it. And I commend ALA (and many other library associations) and I can even commend the Banned Books Week for their work in unveiling censorship in all its forms. For raising awareness about those books that are censored and challenged and banned in our so-called very liberal Western society. It is important, we do need to keep our eyes open.

So the Banned Book Week is good. Right? Right.


But there are reasons that make me want to distance myself from it. Two reasons, mainly.

Reason #1: Just Because It’s Banned, Doesn’t Make It Good

The badge by, below, sums up the whole of my point here:

“Someone banned me, so read me maybe?” Errr… no? When I choose to read a book, it’s because I hope it’s good (don’t we all?) and being challenged or banned does not necessarily make it so.

If you look at the “most frequently challenged books” lists, there are masterpieces like The Call of the Wild by Jack London, but there are OK books like The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and there are awful books like His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. (I know not everybody will agree with my classification here, but I’m sure you can find books you love and books you hate on those lists too.) Therefore no, being challenged is not a parameter I will take into consideration when choosing my next book.

Reason #2: Not All Bans Are Created Equal

The Banned Books Week celebrates all the books that are somehow challenged or banned, but I believe there is a huge difference in nuance. Take for instance:

  1. an author that is completely banned from a country because of what he has written
  2. a library that removes books by a certain author because they are on different sides, politically
  3. a movement that calls for book burning of a very specific title for any given reason
  4. a parent that challenges the teacher’s decision to read a certain book in class, because he/she thinks that his/her son is not ready yet for that kind of content.

Do you think these are all equal? Because I don’t.

And when you look at the Banned Books Week stats page and cross the data, you’ll see that most challenges classified there are like my #4: initiated by a parent, against a school, because a book is supposedly unsuited to age group or sexually explicit. And guess what? I believe parents are still the ones in charge of educating and guiding their children, which includes guiding them through good books that are suitable for them.

Uhm… maybe not these parents.
Cartoon by XKCD

I know I’m walking a thin line here. I know it’s a risk, I know how a narrow-minded parent could ban any and every book from their children and raise them as fundamentalists. I know there are many unreasonable people like that out there. But I still believe there is a greater risk in the opposite way, in ruling against parental control and parental decision.

And I am not a mother (yet), but if I went to my teenage daughter’s school and found the 50 shades books on the shelves, then yes, I would challenge them.

That’s why I don’t totally agree with this week celebration.

Will you tell me I’m wrong?


5 comments on “No Banned Books Week celebration

  1. I do agree that the BBW publicity tends to conflate all kinds of objections under one umbrella, and I’d like to see more nuance. It’s a sledgehammer of an event. 🙂

    American schools generally have a procedure for kids who object to books assigned in class; a kid can ask to read and report on a different book. That does not count as a challenge; it’s when the kid (or parent) then wants to take the book out of the whole school that it’s a problem. That said, I’m usually pretty horrified to hear about, say, ‘The Kite Runner’ being assigned as reading material to 17yos–I’d prefer to avoid horrific rape scenes in school if possible, and it’s not like there isn’t plenty of other literature that is just as (or more) complex.

    I’d hope a high school librarian would not acquire 50 Shades for the school library! Actually I’m pretty sure that parents do that sort of thing fairly often without making waves–librarians make mistakes and sometimes books get put into the wrong section. A parent who says ‘look, this book belongs in the adult section, not YA,’ is often listened to.

    Over time I’ve come to see BBW as an outreach and education tool–the students I work with are mostly not readers at all, and they are more likely to want to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” if you tell them about objections to it. I try to put in history lessons (the Bible in English was banned in the 1500s and people were put to death for it–The Grapes of Wrath was publicly burned in Bakersfield when it was published). I do like the more detailed displays, like our brown-wrapped books that showed details of challenges and so on; then you get a better idea of what really happens. The main message is ‘you don’t have to like a book, but you can’t take it away from other people.’

  2. I love BBW for the spirit of the thing: to raise awareness of censorship and attempts to limit access to books. Of course there are titles on the list that I would prefer my teenagers NOT read, but that is *my* decision as a parent. It is not the decision of politicians, school officials, librarians, church groups, or any other parents. The personal political or religious convictions of Other People are their business; what my kids read is mine.

    BBW reminds me to look at the challenged books for *myself*, to raise my own awareness of what is out there and what people are objecting to. I cannot have an informed opinion until I take the time to do my own homework and make my own judgments. I am constantly astounded by folks who take issue with, for example Harry Potter, and forbid those books to cross their threshold — without ever having read a. single. word. for themselves.

    This is just my humble opinion, as always.

  3. Thank you both for being so nice: I was afraid I would raise all kinds of objections with this post! 🙂
    @ Jean: thank you for sharing all that information with me. I must admit I have no experience of school libraries, and no experience of US libraries either, and sometimes these campaigns that are created for the US and then grow beyond the borders are not the best way to get an objective view of the situation. What you describe seems better.
    Still, IMO there are things that have no place on school shelves — the 50 Shades example was a bit extreme, yes, but that’s what I mean. Of course the limit is very difficult to trace.
    Oh, and:
    “the BBW publicity tends to conflate all kinds of objections under one umbrella, and I’d like to see more nuance”
    you managed to say in 1 line what took me a whole rambling post! 😉
    @ ShaReKay:as I said above, I do agree with the importance of raising awareness against censorship. I’m just puzzling about the limit between censorship and parental control. (BTW, I met some of those people against Harry Potter and I do not understand them either. But then again, there are some banned/challenged book that I do not ever plan on reading, because the doubt is enough to keep me far from them, and because there’s just not enough time to read everything. So as long as these people don’t pose a threat for the writer, the publisher, the library or anyone else reading that book, they are free to keep them out of their homes.)

  4. “I’m just puzzling about the limit between censorship and parental control.”

    I think librarians do try to make the point that parents are in charge of their own families. It’s when people try to go beyond their own families that we get a problem. The American Library Association (the professional organization for librarians) is the sponsoring body for BBW, and their policy states, “Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.”

    But yeah, I think it can wind up sounding a bit different! I would like to see more shades of difference–but publicity campaigns are rarely very nuanced.

Ditelo con parole vostre/Let your words be heard

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