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US Librarians Lead Fight Against Banned Books

by Karoline Kallweit

NEW YORK  - Penguins are indisputably cute. And a children's book about such inoffensive animals could hardly be expected to trigger a nationwide controversy. But then came "And Tango Makes Three" and a heated debate was fired up.

The book, based on a true New York Central Park Zoo story, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, tells the tale of two male penguins bringing up an orphaned chick - and raises the thorny question of what constitutes a family.

"And Tango Makes Three" has consequently ranked among the top 10 of the United States' most challenged books since it was first published in 2005.

This month, "challenged" or "banned" books will be the focus of a week of activities. Banned Books Week is a nationwide initiative by librarians to highlight the efforts of some groups to bar books from library shelves. Now in its 29th year, Banned Books Week will be held from Sep. 25 to Oct. 2.

The challenging and banning of books is not new. In 1873, the Comstock Law was the first piece of national legislation prohibiting the distribution of "lewd, obscene, and/or lascivious" books.

In the early 1980s, there was a sudden surge in the number of book challenges in libraries, schools and bookstores, and librarians got alarmed. The American Library Association (ALA) started counting book challenges reported to them by citizens. They began issuing a list highlighting the most frequently challenged books every year.

"And Tango Makes Three" is on it along with current hits for young adults like the "Twilight" series. Classics such as Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" are also listed.

"A lot of people take the freedom to read for granted," said Angela Maycock, assistant director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, which seeks to provide free access to library material for everyone.

Last year, some 460 book challenges were reported to the ALA. But that is just the tip of the iceberg since most challenges go unnoticed. A lot of teachers self-censor - trying to avoid trouble by rejecting a controversial book from their classes. That is what Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), calls the "chilling effect".

A challenged publication is not necessarily removed from a library shelf. "In the majority of cases," Maycock says, "the books are not removed." There are no statistics on the number of works that end up in library back rooms.

Although a handful of organizations committed to family values or morality in the media raise objections to "bad books", most challenges begin when a person - quite often a parent - complains about a book that he or she doesn't like.

Books have been challenged for offensive or sexually explicit language, their religious views, their portrayal of homosexuality, nudity, sexism or simply because they are viewed as unsuited for a particular age group.

This month, Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian", written in 2007, was banned from the Stockton School District in Missouri. The award-winning novel about an Indian boy who decides to attend a school for white children was part of Stockton's High School curriculum.

But some local parents felt it violated the community's values because of its rough language and sexual depictions. Supporters on both sides were up in arms. Initially banned in April, banning was reconsidered but ultimately the book was removed from the district's library shelves just a few weeks ago.

Bertin, whose anti-censorship coalition defended the circulation of Alexie's book, calls such removals "basically unconstitutional". Several court decisions - including one by the Supreme Court in 1982 - ruled that books must not be removed over objections to their ideas. Maycock adds: "If there is one person in the community who could benefit from a book, it is a crime to remove it."

Larry Siems, director of the freedom to write program at the PEN American Center, is concerned that the banning of books violates the constitutional protection to freedom of speech.

During the upcoming Banned Books Week, events will be held throughout the country. The ALA website lists dozens of activities concerned citizens can organize at bookstores, libraries and in the press. Organizing a discussion forum or displaying a list of banned books are just two of them.

The 18 million community members of the virtual world "Second Life" can also participate in a series of events held on what is called the "ALA Island". During a "Jeopardy"-like game show, for example, contestants can demonstrate their banned book related knowledge. People were also able to submit short videos filmed in "Second Life" - inspired by the theme "Think for yourself and let others do the same."

Meanwhile, a public "Read Out" of challenged books in Chicago on Sept. 25 will be the kick off for this year's Banned Books Week. Tentatively scheduled to appear at the event - among other authors - are Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. They will tell the audience how Silo and Roy raised their chick, Tango. 

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