Calling Out the True Gods of America: The Freedom To Read, Also Think

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Given our skittish, twisted political climate, we offer a rowdy tribute to Banned Books Week and this year's timely theme of diversity. Focusing on decades-long, often bizarrely irrational efforts to remove or restrict books in schools,  the week is aimed at supporting our most American freedom to explore and express ideas - even ungodly or radical ones. It also seeks to remind us of the dangers of censorship, which at one targeted now-seminal works like Moby Dick, The Leaves of Grass, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher In the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird and most of Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. Such efforts, often undertaken by God-fearing, right-thinking, unaccountable gnomes armed with a Sharpie in some dank office, were invariably born of fear and ignorance. "The books that the world calls immoral," wrote Oscar Wilde, "are books that show its own shame."

Sponsored by a slew of library, literacy, publishing and legal defense groups, each year's Banned Book Weeks focuses on the changing targets of censorship in changing times. Earlier targets were profanity, violence, S-E-X,  socially unacceptable behavior and anything dark or scary, because obviously life never is so why should kids ever learn to deal with it? Under the infamous 1974 rubric of a Wisconsin school district's ban of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - “If there’s a possibility something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?” - the most challenged book recently was And Tango Makes Three about two male penguins raising an egg together at Central Park Zoo. Also once banned:  Charlotte's Web's talking animals for "blasphemy," Green Eggs and Ham for "Marxism," Where the Wild Things Are for encouraging "inappropriate behavior," The Giver for "belittling motherhood and family," Harry Potter for lacking a clear "moral arc" (also witches). The Color Purple remains one of the most banned books ever, one critic writes, for challenging "the true gods of America...maleness, violence and white supremacy."

This year's list of most challenged books reflects our demographic shifts and the ensuing fear-mongering it's inspired by what's rapidly becoming a new white straight minority. Two books deal with young trans people, two with gay love ("condones public displays of affection"), two feature Muslim characters. One, Habibi, tells the story of refugee child slaves who come together; it's both a love story and parable about complex relationships - between humans and nature, the first and third worlds, the traditions of Christianity and Islam. Bans extend to prisons, too. A particularly gonzo Texas - "It's like living in the dark ages" - has banned authors from Jon Stewart to Sojourner Truth to Bob Dole to Malcom X; most recently, before it was even published, it banned the non-fiction Wolf Boys, which explores America's disastrous war on drugs through the story of two Mexican-American teens in Texas.

Organizers of this week stress that despite attempts to remove or restrict books, many often remain available thanks to determined teachers, librarians, students, parents and the Office for Intellectual Freedom. We owe it to those vital watchdogs of freedom, and all the illuminating written works of art known or as yet unknown to us, and to ourselves in the name of wonder and beauty and growth, to read something insurrectionary today. From  Ellen Hopkins:


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"A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear."

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This year's top ten most challenged books:

  1. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and other (“poorly written,” “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”).
  3. I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
    Reasons: Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group.
  4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin
    Reasons: Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”).
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
    Reasons: Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“profanity and atheism”).
  6. The Holy Bible
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint.
  7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
    Reasons: Violence and other (“graphic images”).
  8. Habibi, by Craig Thompson
    Reasons: Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  9. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, and violence.
  10. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan
    Reasons: Homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”).

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