The American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week runs Sept. 24–30. Established in 1982, the week aims to raise awareness of book censorship and gain public support. BBW this year focuses specifically on First Amendment rights by celebrating “Our Right to Read.” BBW Chair Charles Brownstein states, “Our free society depends on the right to access, evaluate, and voice a wide range of ideas. Book bans chill that right and increase division in the communities where they occur. This Banned Books Week, we’re asking people of all political persuasions to come together and celebrate Our Right to Read.”
The BBW’s website claims, “Censorship is happening and it is infringing on the rights of readers,” citing the 17 percent increase in book censorship complaints in 2016. Book challenges and bans most commonly occur in schools and libraries with parents and patrons commonly challenging books. Each year individuals and organizations report hundreds of book challenges to ALA, but only 10 percent of reports actually result in the removal of those books. The ALA aims to make those numbers even lower through BBW.
Books that contain diverse content most commonly face these challenges. Nine out of 2015’s top ten most challenged books do. This includes “diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities,” explains the ALA. In light of recent acts of racism and bigotry against diverse populations, future generations need to read about these important issues.
Books give readers a window into lives or ideas that differ from their own. This exposure can foster empathy for others and illustrate the diversity of human experience.
Literature can also act as a mirror, enabling readers to better see themselves through characters or situations familiar to them, giving a new perspective to events or ideas they view as normal. In an essay exploring this concept, Emily Style writes that in general, “white males find, in the house of curriculum, many mirrors to look in, and few windows which frame others’ lives. Women and men of color, on the other hand, find almost no mirrors of themselves in the house of curriculum; for them, it is often all windows.”
Readers need access to both mirror and window books, covering all demographics. Readers without access to books where they feel represented can feel a sense of alienation—that their experiences aren’t valid—deepening that notion of otherness, and as mentioned earlier, windows build necessary bridges between demographics.
Manhattanville College assistant professor Katie Cunningham stresses the importance of this, writing, “Stories can help young children understand that racism very much exists in this country, and that power is unequally distributed based on race, class, and gender. For children from dominant groups, window moments in stories come when the children realize they hold a powerful place in society, and that there is something unjust about this.”
People disproportionately challenge and ban books that reflect diversity. BBW hopes to continue working to give readers access to literature containing these important issues. It is understandable that some parents may not want their children exposed to such charged subjects at a young age for any given reason, yet there is a difference between monitoring the books of one’s own child and monitoring the books of every student at a school or every patron of a library.
This week BBW is hosting a virtual read-out. In addition to read-alouds in bookstores and libraries, there will also be read-outs of banned books utilizing YouTube as a platform. BBW has a designated channel where the group will post videos of people reading banned books aloud. Anyone is able to participate and submit a video that meets their criteria. More info is available on the BBW web page.
BBW’s main goal is to raise awareness. So this week, educate yourselves. Explore ALA’s lists of frequently challenged books. Sign up for newsletters or get involved with an organization protecting our access to books. Spread the word about BBW, get involved with local friends of the library groups, or just curl up with a banned book and celebrate your right to read.