Banned Books Week is an annual event held by the American Library Association that celebrates the freedom to read, typically during the last week of September. This year, the initiative took place between Sept. 26 and Oct. 2 with the theme “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” The goal of the week is to spotlight current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.
The tradition dates back to 1982, when the first Banned Books Week occurred as a response to a sudden increase in the number of challenges issued by varying special interest groups to books in schools, but also in bookstores and libraries. Books are often challenged because they cover sensitive topics, such as racial issues, “damaging” lifestyles, sexuality, violence or even witchcraft.
The American Library Association distinguishes between a challenge and a ban for a book in that a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials by a person or group’s objections, whereas a ban is the actual removal of said materials. But these discrepancies don’t change the fact that we shouldn’t be challenging or banning books just because they deal with sensitive or uncomfortable topics. These titles are necessary in fostering open conversations with children and young adults regarding the topics as a society we are unwilling to discuss.
Some of the most commonly banned and challenged books from 2010 to 2019 include “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morison, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. This may seem shocking, because many of these titles are considered classics, but they are also all titles that deal with uncomfortable topics including race, mental illness, sex and death.
Groups that challenge these books being in schools or other places to which children have access argue these books are corruption waiting to happen. However, the texts in question are actually doorways into necessary yet difficult conversations. We want children and young adults to understand how the world works and their place in it, as well as how they can bring about change. Thus, we need to have these conversations about race, sexuality, gender, mental illness and other taboo topics that are too often the reason books are challenged or banned.
It is okay to feel uncomfortable with some of these topics, as society creates a clear stigma around them. For example, Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” is frequently challenged (and was actually the most challenged book of 2017) for its discussions of suicide, mental illness, sexual assault and bullying. Many of these challenges likely function as backlash against the divisive (and in my opinion, poorly-executed) Netflix series based on the book, as the novel was released in 2007 while the television show premiered in 2017. But this book is meant to make you feel uncomfortable because it sparks conversation about such tough topics by conveying an undeniable message regarding bullying and mental health in adolescence.
As unfortunate as it is, there are many adolescents who can relate to the themes of “Thirteen Reasons Why.” It is better to make these books available to struggling adolescents rather than leave them in the dark, believing they are alone in their experiences.
It’s not that all of these challenged books should be available in kindergarten classrooms, but older children and young adults need to have access to them. These books can spark conversations that can end up saving lives, so banning them makes it harder for teenagers to open up to adults.
Challenging these books just makes people want to rebel and read them more, which luckily still spreads their impact despite the attempted censorship. For example, many libraries and avid readers alike celebrate Banned Books Week by promoting books that are frequently challenged or banned.
Just because you personally disagree with the words of an author does not mean no one will, or that no one else should be able to read those words. You cannot block kids in schools off from entire worlds of thought.