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Book Banning in U.S. Classrooms and Libraries

Every year concerned parents demand the removal of hundreds of "inappropriate" texts from American classrooms and libraries. Are they strangling free speech -- or just trying to protect our kids?
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William Duke

The YouTube videos are short, but they make their point. Whoopi Goldberg spends 51 seconds reading from Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic. YA author A.S. King chose just a few pages from Catch-22. And Laini Taylor, perhaps the only National Book Award finalist with bright pink hair, completed her excerpt from Fahrenheit 451 in three minutes. These aren't simply the women's best-loved works; the uploads are part of Banned Books Week, a nationwide event—now in its 30th year—held in late September that champions free access to all literature, no matter how controversial. "I read banned books," Goldberg says on the video. "I read a lot of banned books."

According to the American Library Association (ALA), one of the event's cosponsors, some 500 titles are challenged annually, amounting to more than 10,000 cases since 1990. Often it's the most popular children's and young adult books that are targeted. The Hunger Games has dominated best-seller lists and is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, yet the trilogy by Suzanne Collins was the third most challenged work in the U.S. in 2011, criticized for being "anti-family" and "anti-ethnic," and for its offensive language and violence. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter was the most frequently banned series from 2000 to 2009 for being too focused on the occult and Satanism. "Censors never go after books unless kids already like them," notes author Judy Blume in her YouTube video. She should know—during the 1990s, five of the 100 most challenged titles were hers.

It's not just kids' books that raise objections, of course. Some of the greatest American novels have drawn fire almost from the day they appeared. Within months of its publication in 1939, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was burned in East St. Louis, Illinois, barred from the Buffalo public library and banned in Kern County, California, where the story was set. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird didn't cause a stir until nearly 20 years after it appeared in 1960, but has since been withdrawn repeatedly from school reading lists and libraries. It even made the most-challenged list in 2011.

Who's objecting? Parents, by and large. The most common battleground is the classroom, followed by school and public libraries, and the primary objections are sexually explicit material, age-inappropriate content and offensive language. Pat Scales, former chair of the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, believes that such objections, however well-meaning, can be misguided. "Sometimes parents are looking to have books banned because they don't believe their children are ready to take on the emotional issues described in, say, a young adult novel—even though they may be grappling with those very issues," she says.