It’s a week full of celebrations! Hobbit Day and autumnal equinox on Sunday, with Tolkien Week all this week. Today is National Punctuation Day. Sunday also kicked off a very important week-long celebration: Banned Books Week.
Censorship is nothing new to human culture. A quick history, courtesy of Mette Newth for the Beacon for Freedom of Expression:
Censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history. In ancient societies, for example China, censorship was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The origin of the term censor can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome in 443 BC. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded as an honorable task. In China, the first censorship law was introduced in 300 AD. Perhaps the most famous case of censorship in ancient times is that of Socrates, sentenced to drink poison in 399 BC for his corruption of youth and his acknowledgement of unorthodox divinities.
It’s understandable why people would ban books. Nothing’s quite so threatening as an idea that catches on, spreading through society like wildfire. People can be killed, but ideas?–not so easily–and so has this concept been posed in many great books and movies. I can’t speak for the entire globe, but in America, the freedom of speech is a “certain unalienable right,” one that defines what it means to be an American. So I just don’t understand why books are being banned here.
Usually, books are banned by people who fear those books will have a negative impact on readers. Granted, I would understand banning a book that promotes violence (or even overt hate speech) against people, with no “moral compass” guiding its pages. Beyond that, though, it’s hard to imagine justifying a ban. The controversies that make us uncomfortable are usually the most important ones to talk about–because they imagine a breakthrough of human or animal rights that are not currently universally acknowledged. The whole purpose of a book is to make us think, to open our minds, to help us grow.
Sometimes, when books are banned, it’s for some pretty incredible reasons. Below is my list of the top ten most outrageous book bans.
A special thank-you to The Week and Buzzfeed for most of the info and choices, along with bannedbooks.world.edu, cited below. All images are from Amazon; click them to buy or find out more about the books .
1. The Dictionary
Seriously. I’ve never known anyone except my dad and me to read the dictionary as an actual book, but apparently, the concept of using the American Heritage Dictionary or Merriam-Webster as “pleasure reading” has been a threat since 1969. School boards have cited “illicit entries” as reasons to keep these compendiums of words out of the classroom. Because why would we learn new words in school? (The Week)
2. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
“In 1985, challengers at Cunningham Elementary School in Beloit, Wisconsin, said that A Light in the Attic ‘encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.’” Now, I’m thinking this is a problem on the parenting side, not a fantastical poetry book, but that’s just me. (bannedbooks.world.edu)
3. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. & Eric Carle
This popular children’s picture book was banned by the Texas School Board because they thought the author behind this playful story was the same who published a controversial Marxist book. And their names weren’t even the same. It was philosophy Professor Bill Martin (of DePaul University, coincidentally) who published Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation—no “Jr.,” no relation. The Board reversed their decision once they learned of their error, but it seems like a little preliminary research would have avoided this. Or, you know, common sense. (nowIknow.com)
4. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
What could be wrong with this innocent literary legend? “Ministers and educators challenged it for…depicting women in strong leadership roles. They opposed not only children reading it, but adults as well, lest it undermine longstanding gender roles.” What?! You KNOW I have a problem with this, readers. Strong Female Characters are essential, and anyone who says they are toxic should be visited by a few. I volunteer as tribute. (bannedbooks.world.edu)
5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
You already know of my love for this book, but even a non-fangirl would laugh at this irony. This book about the danger of banning books has been banned. Is this to enable them for future bans? Still, one can’t help but assume the people banning it have not read it.
6. The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
This is a hallmark of many middle/high schools’ English requirements–and with good reason. How rare to have such a poignant first-hand account into one of the most horrible events that has ever transpired in human history. Plus, the narrator is a teenager, pulling in readers that age that might feel distanced from colder textbook accounts. No one curls up with this one for a laugh before bedtime–obviously, right? But apparently, some people missed the memo. “In 1983, four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of this title because it is, quote, ‘a real downer.'” …I can’t even. Of course it’s a downer. That is EXACTLY why we need to read it. (bannedbooks.world.edu)
7. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Yet another children’s book for the list. Guess who got this one banned? The logging industry, for the book’s “anti-deforesting plot line.” In my opinion, the ban just makes them look (much) worse. (The Week)
8. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
I’ve had a lifelong affection for this cuddly little bear all stuffed with fluff, but apparently, the love is not universal. In fact, Pooh comes in at #22 on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently banned books. Meek little Piglet came under attack as “offensive” in Turkey, causing a State-controlled TV station to take the show off the air. In Russia, someone found a drawing of Pooh wearing a swastika, owned by an extremist–note, not an original, likely “fanart”–which caused the book to be banned by Russia’s Justice Ministry. And then there’s the whole “Issue” of talking animals, which I’ll discuss in #9. I’ve never seen a game of Poohsticks go so wrong. (bannedbooks.world.edu)
9. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Anthropomorphism (giving animals/inanimate objects human characteristics/behavior) is downright offensive to some people. A parents’ group in Kansas claimed “[humans are] the only creatures that can communicate vocally. Showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God.” I think everyone would agree animals have personalities; you know I think so. But even if you don’t, this book is clearly a work of fiction. Symbols have been used to represent human characteristics since the very beginning of storytelling. By that logic, wouldn’t every single book be banned? By the way, the Bible is packed with symbolism, and it advocates kindness towards all creatures. (The Week)
10. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Even the revered bard isn’t safe from being banned. This explanation is spoilery, just warning you–but you should still read/see this play, because it’s excellent! Anyway, in this play, a female character has to disguise herself temporarily as a male. She then falls in love (with a male). Apparently, this early seventeenth-century text has proven too progressive for a New Hampshire town that banned it for violating the school district’s “prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction.” Really? This seems to be another case of the banning group not actually reading the play. (The Week)
In closing, here are some famous quotes by authors about banning books. Of course I had to include two from Ray Bradbury, from/about one of my favorite books ever. Perhaps it’s one of my favorites because banning books is a deep-rooted fear in bibliophiles, this one not excepted. 😉
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Readers, I hope you celebrate Banned Books Week with me. The American Library Association is hosting the event all week long, and you can join in the festivities. But first and foremost, you can just pick up a book that’s been banned and read it. Be a rebel! I hope it will open your minds. Let me know what your favorite banned book is in the comments below. As an author, I hope to see my books land on a ban list somewhere, someday. It will mean I have said something important, something thought-provoking. Something to change the world.