It’s one of my favorite weeks of the year.
No, not because fall has officially started, and no, it’s not cake week on The Great British Baking Show.
It’s Banned Book Week.
You may not have heard of Banned Book Week, but you’ve almost certainly read a banned book; some of the most often challenged books include “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou, and J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Although these are examples of older literary works being removed from libraries, schools, and prisons, banning books is not a habit of the past; the American Library Association tracks about 300 to 400 ban challenges every year, though the organization believes the vast majority (between 82 and 97 percent) of challenges go unreported.
Earlier this month, a reverend from the Edward Catholic School in Tennessee removed the Harry Potter series from school shelves, saying — and this is true — “The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”
There are many similar ludicrous requests for getting books banned: Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” was banned from a Pennsylvania school district for, among several reasons, promoting cannibalism; Bill Martin’s “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” was banned by the Texas State Board of Education because another author of the same name wrote a decidedly non-child-friendly book called “Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation” (this case of mistaken identity was quickly resolved); and Martin Hanford’s “Where’s Waldo” was one of the most challenged books between 1990 and 1999 for — and this is also true — side boob.
It’s easy to point at these extreme examples and laugh off the childish attempts at censorship, but for every ridiculous challenge to a book, there’s two more that are dead serious.
Take “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher (which was the 6th most challenged book in 2018). For those not familiar with the book, it follows a high school character who receives 13 tapes from a fellow classmate that explain why she chose to die by suicide.
Though the book was challenged in earlier years, the number of challenges increased after Netflix created a limited series based off the book in 2017. However, the series made the suicide more graphic and changed the depictions of drug and alcohol use, leading concerned parents to conflate the content of the book with the show and remove the book from school library shelves.
Suicide is a mature topic, no argument there. No parent or guardian wants to sit their child down to explain why a loved one chose to end their life, or confront the fact their child might be having suicidal thoughts. I understand the impulse to shield a child from these ugly realities; what they don’t know can’t hurt them, right?
But the fact of the matter is, children already have a depressingly good chance to be exposed to suicide; it’s the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. overall, with an estimated 47,000 dead and another 1.4 million unsuccessful attempts in 2017.
Those statistics are why it’s so important to have books that tackle these hard topics — they act like mirrors, reflecting our world, ourselves, back to us in new light; taking these resources away only sweeps the issue into a dark corner of society where it can fester among misinformation, stigma, and pain.
Another example of a serious ban is “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas, which follows a young black girl who attends a wealthy, mostly-white school, but lives in a poor, mostly black neighborhood. She’s the only person to see her best friend — a potential drug dealer, but unarmed — get shot by a white police officer, and the two communities she lives in erupt as racial tensions come to a head. It was the fourth-most challenged book last year.
Many challenged the book for its drug references and strong language, but the Fraternal Order of Police in Charleston, South Carolina — which controls a local school’s summer reading list — said the book is “almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that.”
Just to be perfectly clear, that’s the same Charleston where, in 2015, Walter Scott was stopped for having a broken brake light and was shot in the back while fleeing and unarmed, contrary to the official police report. That wasn’t an isolated incident; a 2019 study found black men — especially young black men — are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than their white counterparts.
As the godfather of a black child, that fact will always. ALWAYS. Haunt the back of my mind, right next to the realization that as a white male, I am woefully inadequately prepared to have a serious conversation with him about race and why people — even kind, well-meaning folks — will treat him differently because of his skin color.
Reading “The Hate U Give” certainly didn’t make me an expert on race, but through the lens of a young black woman trying to find her voice in a divided society, it has helped me come to a better place of understanding for when we eventually sit down to talk.
But some people don’t want that discussion to happen.
It’s not really the profanity that some people worry about their children being exposed to. It’s not really the sex, the drugs, and LGBTQ+ themes, the diversity of religious or political views, the use of racial slurs or the concept of white supremacy, or the countless other reasons people want books banned.
Those are all just excuses. Excuses they may truly believe in, but excuses nonetheless, for being unable or unwilling to have those conversations with their child, their community, themselves.
But that’s exactly why we need these books, to help frame those discussions. They help us not only explore ideas and concepts that we aren’t familiar with, but ones we didn’t know even existed.
And, maybe most importantly, when it comes to issues that we’re already tragically, intimately connected to, they help us not feel so alone.
Banned Book Week isn’t just about censorship or the right to information; it’s about our ignorance, our fears, our doubts, and the courage to see yourself, your world, reflected back to you in a new, terrifying way.
So this week, I want you to read a banned book, one that will challenge you, shake you down. While you’re at it, grab one for your children, too; The Sequel in Enumclaw celebrates the event every year, and I’m sure they’ll help find the right book for you.
And from the moment you first crack that spine, keep in mind that someone, somewhere, is afraid of the knowledge contained in those pages, and would work to prevent others from sharing what you’re about to experience.
That knowledge is power.
That power is freedom.
And freedom? Freedom is a book.