Campaigners Defend 'Celebrated Novels' from US Censors

Authors including Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut are among those to have faced recent bans in American schools

American libraries and bookshops are celebrating the freedom to read this week but attempts to force books off shelves are still rife across the country, from the removal of Sherman Alexie's award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from shelves in Missouri to protests over Kurt Vonnegut's seminal title Slaughterhouse-Five.

As this year's Banned Books Week begins, Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said the organisation is "increasingly ... seeing challenges to celebrated contemporary novels". The NCAC has recently protested against the banning of Alexie's novel, which drew parent complaints in Missouri over a description of masturbation, against the removal of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon from classrooms in Indiana and against the cancellation of the appearance of bestselling author Ellen Hopkins at a Texas literary festival following parent protests. It is also investigating the banning of Slaughterhouse-Five from another Missouri school and the removal of six books by Hopkins from a Nevada middle school library.

"If young people are going to become sophisticated readers and thinkers they need to be exposed to this kind of literature in school," said Bertin. "Depriving students of the opportunity to read widely stunts their emotional and intellectual development and puts them at a tremendous disadvantage in school and in life."

This week's Banned Books celebrations saw authors gather in Chicago at the weekend to share their experience as the targets of censors and read from their work. Young adult author Chris Crutcher, who hosted the event, told the Guardian he was "proud" to frequently make it into the list of the top 10 authors challenged or banned in the US.

"I think it's important to stand up to censorship because I think intellectual freedom is a cornerstone for any democracy. I think people don't understand what a slippery slope it is to let a relatively small group with a relatively loud voice, make decisions about decency and morality," he said. "Once one book is banned, all books are at risk."

Carolyn Mackler, whose novel The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things was the eighth most challenged book in the US last year for reasons including its "offensive" language and sexually explicit scenes, sent a statement to be read at the event. "While I'm honoured to be in the company of such amazingly talented authors, I'm certainly not honoured to be on the list," said Mackler. "And while I'm no stranger to book challenges, for some reason I'm always surprised."

She has received "hundreds of letters and emails from teenage girls" who have been inspired by the novel, she said. The book tells the story of Virginia, "a curvy 15-year-old girl who has been made to feel terrible about herself by her not-so-curvy family [but who] ultimately learns to feel good about herself, even to celebrate herself, as she is, without losing weight, without hurting her body."

"I write about teenagers as they are, and my characters sometimes curse, and they hook up, and they confront their parents when they feel they are being wronged. This, I suppose, is upsetting to people who don't want their child exposed to these things. While I sincerely doubt that my book will be someone's only exposure to such content, I respect a parent's wishes for their children. Their children, I emphasise. Not everyone else's," she said. "I am a parent. I closely follow the books that my son reads. If a book is scaring him, we talk about it. If a book doesn't seem appropriate for him, I tuck it away and suggest he wait a few years. I have a good sense of what he's ready for, what he's wondering about. But do I know what is right for his friend or classmate? No way. Please, all of us, let's keep standing up against book banning."

The week-long American celebration of the right to read has now been picked up by UK libraries, which are currently running displays of 50 books that have been banned or challenged around the world in an attempt to raise awareness of censorship. Ranging from The Wizard of Oz (once banned in some US states for referring to witches as "good") to Black Beauty (banned in apartheid South Africa for having the word "black" in its title) and Harry Potter (banned from some UK Christian schools as well as in the US for "promoting witchcraft"), 30 library authorities from Devon to Bolton are taking part in the promotion this week, with author talks and panel discussions planned.

"Banned Books Week points up the ludicrousness of banning legitimate literature," said Mike Clarke, president of the Association of London Chief Librarians. "Perhaps more than any other profession, librarians find themselves dealing with the reality of censorship on a day to day basis. In bringing together these controversial titles of past and present, Banned Books gives us an opportunity to discuss what freedom of expression means today."

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