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Banned Books Week

Book challenges drop, but librarians, writers remain wary

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In this story:

'Harry Potter' tops list

Critics: Restrict access

Chilling effect

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



ATLANTA (CNN) -- When Lois Lowry began writing children's books more than 20 years ago, it never occurred to her that someone might try to ban them.

Since then, eight of her books have been challenged in schools and public libraries across the country. One, "The Giver," ranked No. 11 on the American Library Association's most frequently challenged books of the 1990s.

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 Top 10 most frequently challenged books of the 1990s:
  1. "Scary Story" series, Alvin Schwartz
  2. "Daddy's Roommate," Michael Willhoite
  3. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Maya Angelou
  4. "The Chocolate War," Robert Cormier
  5. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain
  6. "Of Mice and Men," John Steinbeck
  7. "Forever," Judy Blume
  8. "Bridge to Terabithia," Katherine Paterson
  9. "Heather Has Two Mommies," Leslea Newton
  10. "The Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger

    Source: American Library Association



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"I think it's an honor I would prefer to forgo," said Lowry, a two-time winner of the prestigious Newbery Medal. "It's a difficult situation."

Although the number of challenged books declined from 762 in 1995 to 472 in 1999, the American Library Association's concern about restricting public access to books hasn't diminished.

That concern has prompted the ALA, along with the American Booksellers Association and the Association of American Publishers, to sponsor Banned Books Week.

To raise awareness of the issue during the event, which runs through Saturday, libraries and bookstores across the country plan to offer displays and readings of books that have been banned or threatened.

"It's part of our professional duty to help people understand what it means to live in a country that has a First Amendment -- that sometimes you're going to run into things that you don't like," said librarian Carolyn Caywood of Bayside Area Library in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "If our public libraries are going to serve all people in the community, it's going to have something displeasing to every individual in that Community."

'Harry Potter' tops list

The ALA receives hundreds of reports each year about books that parents and others have attempted to remove from library shelves. Association officials believe that's only a quarter of the actual number challenged.

Topping last year's list of most-challenged books were those in J.K. Rowling's wildly successful "Harry Potter" series, which some criticized for its depiction of wizardry and magic. Not far behind was the "Alice" series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Robert Cormier's "The Chocolate War" also came under heat from critics who complained that the book's bad language made it unsuitable for younger readers.

The list also includes "Blubber," by Judy Blume, "Fallen Angels," by Walter Dean Myers, John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," and Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

And the challenges keep mounting. Just last week, an Alabama parent's complaint prompted the removal of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" from a high school library shelf. The mother was upset about references to orgies and suicide, along with characters' lack of respect for religion and family.

The 1931 work, ranked No. 5 on the Modern Library Top 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, also ranks 54th on the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s.

In another incident, a federal judge declared unconstitutional a law in Wichita Falls, Texas, that allowed signers of a petition to remove "objectionable" books from the public library. "The effort to ban a book is usually a reflection of unhappiness with the issue, and banning a book doesn't make the issue go away," Caywood said.

Critics: Restrict access

Librarians welcome feedback from the public, including requests to introduce new titles, Caywood said.

"If there's an area that we've neglected that's of interest to the taxpayer, I want to know and want to add it," she said. "Adding is radically different from subtracting, so if someone feels their viewpoint is underrepresented, then I very much want to know that and I want to do something about it.

"But the thing to do ... is not to subtract somebody else's viewpoint and have none of each."

graphic
Author Lois Lowry's "The Giver" ranked No. 11 on the American Library Association's most frequently challenged books of the 1990s  

One group that hasn't hesitated to provide feedback is the American Family Association, which posts a report on its Web site called "How safe is your public library?"

It encourages readers to determine whether a library is "under the influence" of the American Library Association and whether it observes Banned Book Week.

It also suggests that people ask about parental rights regarding what their children read, and to search for selections with homosexual or erotic themes. It cites titles such as "Heather Has Two Mommies," "Daddy's Roommate" or Madonna's "Sex," all of which are on the ALA's most-challenged list for the 1990s.

David Miller, national field director for the Mississippi-based organization, said the Family Association takes issue with the ALA policy, stated in its "Library Bill of Rights." That statement reads, "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views."

"They have a policy that we believe places children at risk in their libraries," he said.

Miller also suggests "banned books" is a misnomer, since a book that has been challenged isn't necessarily removed from the library.

"What we're saying is, it recognizes a mindset by librarians that says if a parent questions the use by children of any of their materials, then the American Library Association calls it a banned book, although the book has not been banned," he said. "They prefer to use the word 'banned' because it engenders greater emotion."

Chilling effect

Protests still can have a chilling effect on librarians or teachers, regardless of whether a book is banned, author Lowry says.

"Even though they may like a book and want to teach the book, they don't have time to deal with the bureaucracy that's required, and they're likely to choose a less controversial book," she said.

"The Giver," published in 1993, is about a 12-year-old boy in a futuristic society who tries to fight the hypocrisy among adults around him by breaking some rules.

The book was banned from classes in a California school district after parents complained about violent and sexual passages. Some members of a Montana community were concerned about the book's treatment of the themes of infanticide and euthanasia, meaning parents had to give permission for their children to use the book in school.

It's difficult to predict what book may prompt a challenge, said Lowry. She remains surprised that "The Giver," which has no explicit sex or foul language, created such an uproar.

Lowry said she doesn't back away from difficult or potentially controversial stories because of the challenges. Still, it's hard to avoid thinking about the possibility of parental dissent as she writes her books, Lowry said.

"I'd like to be pure and say it doesn't enter my mind. I hope it doesn't diminish my writing," Lowry said. "But it doesn't serve any purpose if I do a book and nobody buys it and nobody uses it."

Lowry's latest novel, "Gathering Blue," features a young protagonist who -- sure enough -- goes up against what she perceives as a hypocritical adult society.

"That pitting of a young person against the adult world may trouble some parents," she said. "I'd like to hope not, but I fear that it will be, once again, one of the most challenged."



RELATED STORIES:
Banned Books Week spotlights battle over censorship
September 27, 1999
Fighting back against censorship: 'Places I Never Meant to Be'
August 26, 1999

RELATED SITES:
Modern Library -- 100 Best Novels
American Booksellers Association
American Library Association
American Family Association
The John Newbery Medal

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