It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Further Musing on Banned Books

I did a little searching to see if there was a Canadian equivalent of the “Banned Books” list. (In fact, that name is a bit misleading: the books were on the list because they were challenged; many (some? most? all?) of those books may not ever have been actually banned.)

The Canadian list I found was much more informative: not only the titles and authors were cited, but the reason for the challenge and, when available, its outcome.

I discovered that it was very rare for the challenge to result in the book being withdrawn from the class, store, or library. (This is good!)

I discovered that many books were challenged by a single person. Hmmm…

You know, if one wing-nut writes a letter of outrage to a bookstore owner, I don’t really think he or she constitutes a serious threat to literary freedom. There’s a very industrious fellow in my town who, every weekend morning, distributes hundreds of sheets of paper, closely filled with WARNING TO GOVERNMENT LEADERS AND HEADS OF STATE AROUND THE WORLD… RECENT MEETINGS EXPOSE THE MYSTERY GENEVA… THE WTO WANTS SMALL AFRICAN COUNTRIES… WARNING TO CEO… THERE IS NO RECOURSE FOR THE UNDERPRIVILEDGED…CEO CORPORATIONS USE LEGISLATION ADVANTAGE… SEVEN PERCENT OF REALITY IS IN MY HEAD…

Every weekend. Hundreds of sheets of paper, tucked on windshields of parked cars for blocks and blocks in the downtown. He’s angry, that’s clear. He doesn’t think much of people in authority, and seems to hold capitalism in some disregard. Sometimes it seems he’s trying to rally the people to rebellion. At the very least, he’s an ecological threat, but does anyone put him on a published list of threats to peace and stability? Course not. He’s just one nut job, and a pretty harmless one at that.

So, to find that a good number of items made the Canadian list because of one letter of complaint to one bookstore is a little disconcerting. I suppose a serious threat can start with one person; if that one is organized, focussed, diligent. It would depend on the community: will they rally round or ostracize? One unsupported person, forever on their own, is no threat – just the local eccentric.

I further discovered that a fair chunk of them made the list because a parent or group of parents felt they were not age-appropriate. Of course these is room for abuse here. Parents could rally around and decide their sixteen-year-olds should not be reading books about puberty and sexual maturity. But that’s not what I found.

One example that poked me in the eye was that of a book on date rape – which was being used in a GRADE FOUR classroom. Now, those of you who’ve been reading me for long enough will know that I’m very relaxed about sex and sexuality, and I’m able to talk with my children about it freely – at a level appropriate to their capabilities. Date rape? With 9-year-olds?

If my child had been in that class, I’d have been having a conversation with the teacher, too. If it had been a grade seven, maybe even a grade six class, that wouldn’t be troublesome to me. But grade fours are prepubescent, largely. Most of them still think the other sex is “icky”. Dating is not really on their horizon yet, sex even further, and the nasty possibilities of dating/sex impossibly remote. Their first “date”, which will probably not occur for at least a couple of years (if their parents have any sense at all) will likely be done in a group. A bunch of them will go somewhere, and the couple’s dating-ness will be evidenced because they’ll hold hands during the outing (though maybe not when their friends are looking). So, yes, I’d have trouble with that book being raised with my 9-year-old. Does that make me a “book-banner”?

So now I’m wondering: how many titles on the list I posted yesterday got there by similar means?

To me, book-banning means an intelligent effort (not the ravings of a random individual) to have a particular text banned from public consumption. It’s trying to control what other people think. So, if people are lobbying to have a certain book completely prohibited in bookstores and libraries across their city – that’s book-banning. If a single person manages to badger a bookstore owner into removing a volume from his shelves, that’s book-banning. A person who writes a single letter which is either ignored or responded to politely is a would-be banner, but doesn’t deserve the list. A parent who says “I don’t want my child reading this book for another couple of years” is not a book-banner. At all.

Book-banning is real. It is wrong. But please, let’s be accurate.

© 2006, Mary P

October 1, 2006 - Posted by | books, controversy, parenting


  1. It’s true, challenged is a much better term. It’s what we call it whenever a patron asks us to remove a book, or protests it’s inclusion on our shelves or in a certain area of the collection.

    This happens relatively frequently, and we take it seriously, bring it to a committee, respect the concern, but rarely if ever remove the item. The more organized groups or a large number of poeople in one area protesting a book’s availability does happen too. Some of the most notable have been, of course, Harry Potter (for religious reasons) and Judy Blume (because she discusses sexuality). You notice the topics there? Those are the hot button issues, the things that get parents mobilized. And it is most often parents – again, you notice how many are children’s books on this list – because we are protective of our young and their impressionable young minds. Sometimes justly so, sometimes because we don’t give them enough credit or want to insulate them from things we aren’t ready to think about them reading.

    The thing for libraries is that we take this very seriously. And the ALA, being a library association, gets very up in arms about anything that smacks of censorhsip because it is a dearly held ideal of the profession. So yeah, it’s a stunt to raise such a hue and cry – it’s about drawing attention and shining a light.

    Comment by kittenpie | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  2. Oh, and not to completely hog your comments, but I was curious to look at this myself (this being interesting stuff to us librarians!) and noticed that the list is in fact more accurate than the week is: “Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century.” So that’s good to see. It also had this note about definition, which is helpful:

    The ALA reports there were more than 3,000 attempts to remove books from schools and public libraries between 2000 and 2005. Challenges are defined as formal, written complaints filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.

    So I’m glad to see that while the ALA can be kind of wingnuts, they are more reasonable than they make it sound. I think it’s sensationalizing for attention. Worked, too…

    Comment by kittenpie | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  3. About three years ago a co-worker asked me to mark the books that I had read from a then current version of the ‘100 most challenged books’. She was collecting daa for a college paper she was writing. I think the total I marked was somewhere around 20. I then went to my library’s online catalog and started ordering them from numbers 1-100 in groups of 5 or so (excluding MOST of the ones I had already read. Some I read again because, though I remembered the title, I did not remember the story…). It took be almost 2 years to get through the list.

    Many of them were very good, most were good and only one or two were stinkers that I wouldn’t want to recommend to others (stinkers becuse they just weren’t well written).

    My general assessment of the ‘reason’ why these books were on the requested to be banned list is becuause they inspired children and young adults to ask ‘the tough questions’ of their parents…about sexuality (gay and straight relationships), death, divorce, drugs, etc. I thought the books could make a very valuable place to start conversations with your children (or vice versa) about some of the tougher topics in life.

    I agree with you about ‘age appropriateness(??)’ being an important criteria, but that doesn’t mean they should be removed from the school library….but from the current classroom curiculum. (Some parents just go really overboard!!!)

    One other thought that I had was at least these kids are READING…which a lot of children do not do outside of their homework. (sorry for the long rant this is a sensitive subject with me. In case it was not apparent from this post, I agree with you).

    Comment by homie2 | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  4. I’m glad you brought this up. I find that the words “book-banning” and “censorship” are often invoked to end the discussion – because “censorship” is obviously wrong, and a violation of everybody’s freedom. But when it comes to books that are assigned in the classroom, there is already, from the outset, a lack of freedom involved – the readers, in this instance, do not have the freedom to choose what they’re reading or to decide not to read a book if they find it upsetting or disturbing. That’s not to say that children should simply be given free reign and teachers should not assign books but simply to acknowledge that there are issues of freedom and self-determination on both sides. For that reason I’d draw a big distinction between challenging a book’s use as a required text in the classroom vs. its inclusion on library shelves.

    As for school libraries, again I think the issues are not quite as one-sided as they are often made to seem. I find it often comes down to a power struggle between educators and parents to determine not only what the children are reading but also what ideologies they are taught. It’s not obvious to me that school librarians are always better equipped than parents to determine what children ought to read. I’m not saying that books should be pulled from the shelves whenever a single parent files a complaint but rather that we should not assume that such complaints are always made by benighted fanatics.

    Comment by bubandpie | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  5. I spent an hour trying to find out which (if any) if the books had actually been banned. I couldn’t find the list anywhere.

    i agree, the whole thing is a bit senstionalist – although it doesn’t hurt to highlight that there are bigots in the world.

    Although I did find out what the complaint(s) about Where’s Waldo was:-0 apparently there is a nude female sunbather about 10mm long in one of the pictures. If you look VERY carefully, through a magnifying glass (or preferably a microscope) you could see a nipple!

    Comment by Juggling Mother | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  6. here, here. people are quick to cry out and not so quick to do their homework and build their case. some movements lately seem to be defined on less. personal feelings on such shouldn’t define a movement, or inact legislation, but it can certainly create a hell of a lot of hype.

    Comment by jen | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  7. i totally agree about the age appropriateness, and it’s a point i brought up in numerous discussions i had wtih others about that list. i think Cujo is a really great book (if you’re into that style of literature), but i don’t want my nine-year-old reading it – i don’t want to deal with the nightmares that would accompany that reading, and i don’t want my child to have to either. but that doesn’t mean i think the book should be banned. i just think i need to carefully monitor what my children are reading and what the effects of that reading will be. if a book is going to get them thinking about big issues and asking tough questions, i’m all for that. if it’s going to emotionally scar them in some way, i’ll hold them off for a few years.

    Comment by kari | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  8. Mary, you say that if a single person manages to badger a bookstore owner into removing a volume from the shelves, that counts as book banning. I wholeheartedly disagree. As long as the bookstore owner has a choice in the matter and the decision isn’t forced on them from above, I find that sort of “banning” totally appropriate. It’s a free choice on the part of the owner, which can’t count as banning.

    Comment by Jamie | October 2, 2006 | Reply

  9. Kittenpie: I knew the librarians among you would be all over this topic!

    Sex and religion are sure to be hot points. (And they’re inter-related, of course: I’d imagine many, though not all, objections to sexual content are made from religious grounds.)

    It is a parental responsibility to guide and direct a child’s upbringing. We don’t all have the same standards, of course. For most of us, I think, just because we don’t think our child should be reading a particular book, does not mean that we’ll then try to disallow anyone else’s child from reading it.

    I dislike sensationalism: to my way of thinking, yes, it may draw initial attention to the cause, but ultimately it undermines its credibility. So, while I still feel as I ever did about book-banning, I have less respect for the ALA, and will certainly read any further reports from them with a more jaundiced eye.

    Homie2: These books cause kids to ask the tough quesions, yes, but also expose kids to perspectives on those questions that the parents may not want the children to entertain. (This not in defense of the behaviour, just exploring it.) If I believe firmly that a certain behaviour is dead wrong, I will not want my child reading a book that portrays it as normal.

    But, as I said to kittenpie, most people would sit down and talk to their child about the book, use it as a teaching opportunity; only a few will then say that no one’s child should be reading it. I totally agree: having a book removed from a specific class is one thing; having it removed from the school library quite another.

    I would also like to see stats on the frequency per capita of attempts to challenge (and the reason for the challenge) in countries around the world. I suspect the US would be close to the top of the list of first world countries – and thus the ALA has cause for concern.

    Bubandpie: It’s not obvious to me that school librarians are always better equipped than parents to determine what children ought to read. Good point. Librarians are the book experts. Does that make them the definitive artibiters of what my child should be reading? I don’t think so. Valued resources, but not necessarily superior in their judgment.

    When a anti-censorship ideologue meets a protective parent ideologue, who can say definitively who is right? It isn’t so clear. There is validity to both perspectives, but neither is entirely in the right.

    It’s about balancing interests and values. What is to be done when two values – freedom of thought and parental responsibility – come into conflict? Nothing is accomplished when both sides simply scream “Mine! Mine! Mine is right!”

    In fact, there are grey areas, even with a concept so widely valued as anti-censorship.

    JugglingMother: LOL Apparently prudes have excellent eyesight. We’ve had Waldo books in our home for years, and I’ve never once seen a naked nipple. And you know what? I simply refuse to go to all the bother of hunting it down…

    Jen: I think there’s a place for emotions in debate: they give you the impetus, the drive, the passion. But you have to understand their place, and you also have to be able to keep them in that place, or else “debate” soon deteriorates into nothing more substantial than repeated declarations of assumptions, or worse, personal invective.

    In this case, I don’t really think the ALA was being emotional themselves: I think they were quite cynically manipulating the emotions of the public. To hear that a book was “challenged” engenders (to me, at least) the possibility that a rational, intelligent concern was expressed; to say a book was “banned” raises the spectre of benighted fanatics (thanks Bubandpie!) trying to control our minds.

    Kari: What you describe is good parenting, which does, in the broadest sense of the word, involve censorship. No responsible parent would allow their child total access to all information, never taking into account the child’s capabilities, sensibilites, maturity. It would, as you say, be harmful to the child.

    Comment by Mary P. | October 3, 2006 | Reply

  10. Jamie: Oops! Missed yours at the end.

    Practically speaking, there are millions of books out there, and a store can only stock so many. The pragmatic choices an owner makes are not censorship, but there will always be books which are not being sold there.

    If a person approaches a bookstore owner, they have a discussion, and at the end of it the bookstore owner decides not to carry that book, is that banning? If the person continually harrasses the owner to the point where he gives in, just to get himself and his family some peace, is that banning? There is a qualitative difference between those two “choices”, I think.

    Further, it’s about access. If one bookstore in a city of dozens of bookstores decides not to carry a particular book, that’s a different matter than if the only store in a small town makes the same decision.

    To my mind, all are banning, to one degree or another.

    Comment by Mary P. | October 3, 2006 | Reply

  11. Great literacy liberty posting Mary P.

    Sorry to be so late to the party. Of course, all Kittenpie says is bang on. But I’ll tell you as a pretty naive school board employee I was shocked when a TL I respect chose to accept a parents challenge. She explained it to me as follows.

    Listen we have lots of books here and if anyone wants it I can borrow it from another school. The bottom line is one of our parents has some good points (book was a questionable work on Bosnia conflict) … so in this case I will treat it like peanut butter.

    I can see the public library has a different mandate but at her school she did what worked for the group. Another reason to have a good school library program, I’d say.

    Comment by mo-wo | October 3, 2006 | Reply

  12. So, to find that a good number of items made the Canadian list because of one letter of complaint to one bookstore is a little disconcerting.

    I actually find that semi-comforting. To me, it says that in order to come up with a list of challenged books, they have to scrape the barrel. Which may not be true at all, but I like thinking that we as a whole are sane enough that it’s the case.

    Comment by Nire | October 3, 2006 | Reply

  13. BubandPie –
    you’re quite right. We librarians may be, as Mary says, “the experts,” but when a parent asks me for help finding a book for their child, my questions are about what else they have read and enjoyed, and whether they are strong readers or still developing their skills. I always hope to have the child there too so I can consult with the end consumer, as you might say, and suggest that he read a paragraph or two to check for level. If not, I usually suggest the parent take a few and let the child choose.

    And yes, Mary, as I say, the ALA can be a bit nuts. It’s their job, I guess, kind of in the same way that a union wants to protect the interests of its members and sometimes gets a bit overboard. They launched a lawsuit against the government in the states over a law requiring internet filters for children. Good intent, perhaps and yes, filters are problematic, but again, mostly to illuminate the problem.

    Goodness, here I am writing an essay in your comments again. Just interesting stuff for me, clearly!

    Comment by kittenpie | October 3, 2006 | Reply

  14. mo-wo: In fact, I also once challenged a book at our public library. I’d completely forgotten until I read one of kittenpie’s comments. It was a book aimed at children under 8, I’d guess, which very clearly (to my mind) supported abusive behaviour. A dad behaves terribly to his child (shouting and intimidating), frightens her into hiding for the better part of a day, and then makes up by saying “You don’t need to be sad. You know I don’t mean the stuff I say when I’m mad.”

    Lovely. Her feelings are negated and his behaviour dismissed but not altered. What a terrible message! In the right hands, it could be a very useful tool to combat abuse, but I’ll tell you now, I know children who live in that environment: they don’t need to pick up a book that tells them that this is normal and okay. I would have liked that book put in the parenting section of the library, not on the kids’ shelves.

    I don’t know what happened to the book, nor do I remember the title or author, so I can’t follow up now, but I do know that the librarian was very respectful and warm in her response to me.

    As far as children’s books goes, caution is wise. A book that gives questionable information? Kids don’t analyze their reading as adults do; they don’t stand outside and consider. They tend to accept the book at face value: so the book that normalized abuse? Gives me shivers to think of a child reading that book without an adult at his/her elbow!

    Perhaps we need an “AA” rating on some books! LOL

    Nire: Thanks for stopping by, and I like your attitude! While I’d rather we took pride in saying, “Hey, we really looked hard, and could only find x instances of banning in the past year,” the notion that we had to really streeeeeetch the definition to get our full hundred is, as you say, comforting!

    Kittenpie: Don’t apologize! This is fun!

    I hope you don’t think I’m just trashing the ALA wholesale. I may not approve of this particular technique, but the values it’s espousing are values I share. And, as I said to Homie2, above, there may be good reason for the ALA to be particularly diligent. Particularly these days.

    Just about every librarian I’ve ever consulted has been helpful in a very sensible way. Questions first, then suggestions, just as you say.

    I’m a huge fan of libraries. I’m often in one a couple of times a week – once for the tots, and once for me!–>

    Comment by Mary P. | October 3, 2006 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: