Celebrate Sex, Drugs, Language, Ideas with Banned Books Week

Apparently I am ruining my fourth grader. According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the most challenged book of 2012 is dog-eared on his bookshelf. Drum roll for…Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey, challenged in schools and libraries for its “offensive language, unsuited for age group.”


Call me contrarian, but it suddenly sounds a lot more interesting.

Chalk one up for Banned Books Week.

When I read the lists of banned and challenged books, after incredulity and a touch of self-righteousness, I often think, “well, there’s probably something worth reading in that one. Let’s get a copy!”

I hope kids think the same way.

Many challenges are over books written for or assigned to teens, including in advanced classes. If that Hemingway classic your teacher passed out has been challenged as a “sex novel,” maybe you’ll be on top of your after-school reading (that was A Farewell to Arms, kids). Or, you’ll head deeper into the stacks looking for more Hemingway (psst…he also wrote the previously banned The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls).

Yay! Kids reading! And visiting libraries!

Sure, not every book belongs in every library or is right for every reader. And being challenged doesn’t necessarily make a book good (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?). But, according to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, at least 46 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been the target of ban attempts.

Books should challenge our perspectives and opinions. They can prompt discussions, raise questions and new ideas. They can even make us uncomfortable. Restricting yourself, and your community, to books you already agree with and that are written by people who think like you, is shortsighted and intellectually limiting.

Let’s trust our librarians, teachers, and parents to make decisions about what books are appropriate and intellectually worthwhile.

It’s easy to look at book challenges from decades past and laugh or think we’ve moved beyond.

For instance, if you want to ban Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird foroffensive language; racism” then you just don’t get it (and you are no bookswain). And back in 1961, an Oklahoma City group called Mothers United for Decency hired a trailer, dubbed it “smutmobile,” and displayed books deemed objectionable, like D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Oh, what the smutmobile might have done for book sales.


But books continue to be challenged.

Just last week, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison was banned from Randolph County Public School libraries and classrooms in North Carolina. Arizona’s 2010 law HB 2281 which bans ethnic studies, banned seven Mexican-American books in public classrooms. And earlier this year, a group of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, students and teachers fought to keep The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky in their school district, and won.

There are too many beloved books on the Banned Books lists for me to recount: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Harry Potter, The Kite Runner.

There also are books to add to my ever-expanding reading list (Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, you’re in my shopping cart).

So, pick out some interesting, potentially provocative reads from the lists below. They come well recommended.