Curbing Censorship 

Learn about the mounting trends and local players behind Banned Books Week

click to enlarge At Rediscovered Books in downtown Boise, a display features current and historically challenged books.

Harrison Berry

At Rediscovered Books in downtown Boise, a display features current and historically challenged books.

When a parent complained in 2018, John Green's novel Looking for Alaska was pulled from the shelves of West Ada School District middle school libraries for containing language and themes deemed to be too mature for students there. In 2014, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the text in question, that time removed from a West Ada high school supplemental reading list for what some said were racist themes.

"The ultimate idea that would-be censors are trying to protect children remains true," said Noral Pelizzari of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "Their main goals are limiting the ideas that children and other readers are permitted to engage with."

Young people are the center of gravity in contemporary debates over censorship, in part because of the power of literacy to shape values. Parents may have legitimate concerns that some texts may not be age-appropriate for their kids, but it's worth noting that both Looking for Alaska and The Absolutely True Diary have appeared on the American Library Association's annual lists of most-challenged books. That list is the basis for Banned Books Week, which will be celebrated in Boise and around the country Sunday-Saturday, Sept. 22-28.

The ALA's frequently challenged books list has long contained plenty of titles geared toward children, but over the years, experts say, other trends and patterns of censorship have become clear.

"What we see is people who, rather than engaging in complicated, difficult, complex conversations that can be uncomfortable with their kids, with students, with themselves, try to prevent students from accessing ideas that might cause them to talk about things that adults don't want to talk to them about," Pelizzari said.

Examples abound. Sexuality has long been a cause for restricting young people's access to certain books, but in the last decade, LGBTQ issues in literature have become specific causes for concern. In the top 11 titles on the ALA's list for 2018 (its most recent), six have LGBTQ themes or characters. In the late-1990s, the concern was whether books like the Harry Potter series promoted the occult and rejection of authority.

The list itself comes with caveats. It is based entirely on reported instances of censorship, and offers at best a peephole into book-challenging in the U.S. ALA Interim Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom Deborah Caldwell-Stone said that can be attributed, in part, to the controversial nature of some challenged books—and the possibility that educators and librarians reporting censorship could lose community standing or even their jobs for doing so. It is, however, a good tool for understanding why and how censorship takes place—as well as knowing how to combat it.

"The argument we often hear is that there's no such thing as censorship in the United States, but in fact, we have situations across the country where school boards and library boards take books off the shelves because of objections. That's absolutely counter to our First Amendment tradition in the United States," she said. "By engaging in censorship, these smaller entities are really denying that tradition and denying the civil rights of the individuals involved."

Outside of schools, municipal libraries and other literary organizations have had a role to play. At the Boise Public Library, challenges to materials are very rare—there have been four challenges in the last year, and four challenges the year before that—but those situations are taken seriously, and the library does extensive research to ensure that the items in question are placed appropriately and the concerns of challengers are respected.

"For us, and for libraries as a whole, we really are trying to represent our whole community—not just the majority or the people who are most visible," said Boise Library Assistant Supervisor Kathleen Stalder. "We're covering anybody who might walk in here. With that in mind, people are going to be unhappy sometimes."

Libraries contain wide ranges of material, but as public institutions, they have obligations to support the broadest-possible audience. Private booksellers have no such obligation, but they do share sensibilities and concerns about censorship. Rediscovered Books in downtown Boise has historically spoken out about the removal of books from area libraries and curricula, and distributes information regarding censorship reporting and personal data security. For Banned Books Week this year, it has erected a display dedicated to frequently challenged books that includes titles like the Captain Underpants series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Handmaid's Tale and others.

Co-owner Laura DeLaney said she has told her employees responding to complaints to point to a sign in the window that reads "All Are Welcome."

"We want you to see that the values we have are reflected in what we carry, but it's not one set of values—it's an inclusive set of values," she said.

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