Photo by Katherine Bauer | News Editor
“Hop on Pop” by Dr. Seuss and “Fifty Shades” of Grey by E.L. James likely have only one thing in common besides being books. They have both been placed on banned book lists in America, according to the American Library Association (ALA).
This past Sunday marked the start of Banned Books Week. The ALA designates this week as a time to celebrate the freedom to read.
“The idea (of Banned Books Week) is to make people aware that it still happens and that it’s a problem and to make people hopefully understand that it’s kind of a silly thing to do,” Associate Professor of English Beth Younger said. “I think the function of it is just awareness. But I think the problem is the people who need to pay attention to it aren’t going to.”
In celebration of the week, Cowles Library has a book display on the main floor. In After Hours, there is a board listing banned books. A craft station in the lower commons offers students the chance to make superhero masks to go along with the superhero theme. “Stand up for your right to read.”
“Banned Books Week is near and dear to my heart because I’m interested in issues of diversity and inclusion and making sure we get as many narratives to the table as possible,” Campus Engagement Librarian Sam Becker said.
Book banning in the past involved burning every copy that could be found. Today, it means pulling books off the shelf and keeping them out of the hands of children.
“I mean the word banned is kind of ironic because how do you ban a book?” Younger said. “There’s no button that you can push that can make every copy of Catcher in the Rye disappear.
“What happens is more local and, I think, more insidious. What they call it is book challenging.”
For years, the ALA has asked people to send in incidents of book challenging and censorship.
It then compiles lists of the most banned books each year and categorizes them into most banned young adult and children books, diverse content literature and classics.
“I think we talk about banned books because it’s attention-grabbing,” Becker said. “But really it’s about censorship. We talk about the omission of the ideas or language.”
Becker said that Cowles Library is different from public libraries when it comes to censorship. The book collection on campus is an academic library, meaning the content needs to reflect the literature taught in the classrooms.
“When we talk about literature, we’re often times talking about straight, white dead men,” Becker said. “We’re talking about a specific experience. And not that that experience has no value, but often times the books that get censored or challenged are ones that fall outside of that experience.”
For example, Becker said that books revolving around race and queerness are often challenged or restricted by parents and community members. The ALA reported that from 2000-2009, over 1,500 books were challenged because of sexually explicit content in the United States.
Books are often placed on age-restricted lists so only certain students can check them out from the school library. High school and grade school teachers have had their curriculum challenged when they assign a certain book to read that a parent does not think is appropriate.
“I think what they should do is say, ‘Look we’re the educators. This is what we’re reading. If you don’t want your children to read stuff, home school them,’” Younger said. “But nobody wants to say that. They want to be nice to parents.”
Another reason books are banned and censored, according to the ALA, is offensive language, but most banned books were reportedly banned because they were not age appropriate and for “other objections.”
While parents and community members have different reasons for wanting a book banned or restricted in a school or library, Becker said it can be traced back to diverse content.
“I think that when people come against experiences that aren’t their experiences, they feel a certain level of discomfort,” Becker said. “That discomfort, depending on how you interpret it, can lead you to really firmly believe that other people don’t have the right to express this.”
Censorship by parents typically stems from the fear that harm will occur to their child by reading about a certain topic.
“In some sense, I think it would be nice to be generous with those people and tell them that they’re trying to protect their children from something they believe is going to harm them,” Younger said. “The thing that I always want to ask someone who wants to ban or challenge a book is, ‘What are you afraid of happening?’ And I’m not sure anybody ever asks them that.”
Both Drake employees think that challenging and restricting a book are not the appropriate steps to take when concerns are raised about its content.
“What happens is parents get upset,” Younger said. “But do they have a discussion with the school? I really think there needs to be education of parents who are concerned.”
Becker said she wants students to understand that they read certain books in class because of many factors beyond their control. However, besides societal norms trying to shape curriculum, there are those advocating for the freedom to read.
“I think that it’s important students know that book that you had in high school that you didn’t like, or that book that changed your life in high school, probably somebody had to fight for you to be allowed to read that,” Becker said.
Younger has taught an FYS in the past about banned books. Her students read books such as Forever by Judy Blum and Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
“I feel like it kind of expands into other things about freedom and restriction and what we we’re trying to do to teenagers or keep them from learning or doing,” Younger said. “So I just think it’s a really good topic to think about in your first year of college. You get to say things that you wouldn’t normally say. Everyone has experienced some form of restriction of expression or thought at some point in their life. So almost everyone can relate to it.”
For Younger, book restriction goes against what America is supposed to stand for.
“Because we are America, we’re the land of the free,” she said. “We are not supposed to restrict material as far as I’m concerned. We shouldn’t really keep people from reading what they want to read.”
Cowles Library has posted throughout the week on its Facebook page about the festivities its hosting and various lists of banned books.
Extensive lists of Banned Books can be found on the ALA website at http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned.