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?

By Michael Winerip

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Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird didn't cause a stir until nearly 20 years after it appeared in 1960, but has since been withdrawn repeatedly from school reading lists and libraries.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.

The ALA has also noted an increase in organized group challenges, possibly fueled by reviews like those offered by Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry whose website (focusonthefamily.org) dissects books from a religious vantage point. Its analysis of Romeo and Juliet, for example, points out that "even the earliest lines of the play, which state that [the pair] are 'star-crossed lovers,' indicate that cosmic destiny, not God, will guide the actions in this story." Candi Cushman, education analyst for the group, says, "Parents should have a role—and in fact have a right and responsibility to be involved in what their children are taught in taxpayer-funded schools, especially when it involves controversial topics. Fact is, there are detailed systems in place for addressing their concerns. We can trust the democratic process to weed out illegitimate complaints."

That's just what happened in Plano, Texas, after the parents of a 14-year-old protested what they considered obscene photos of ancient sculptures depicting male frontal nudity in the textbook Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities. Officials then pulled the volume, which was used by hundreds of freshmen and sophomores in the district's gifted and talented program. But students and parents fought back, launching a barrage of phone calls and e-mails as well as a social media campaign on Facebook, accusing the decision makers of censorship.

They prevailed: The district reversed its decision. "It would be ridiculous for us to learn about Greek art without ever looking at some of its most famous and significant statues," said one 15-year-old student, adding that it was equally ridiculous to remove the text "because of one parent complaint."

To avoid such skirmishes, the ALA urges schools to keep contested titles in the classroom or on library shelves until a committee reviews the works and makes a formal recommendation to the officials in charge. Scales has an idea that could preempt some disputes altogether. During her 37 years as a middle and high school librarian in Greenville, South Carolina, she asked students to write their explanations of why a book was meaningful to them and why they'd like their parents to read it too. She recalls a 14-year-old who chose Forever by Judy Blume, one of the first authors to candidly portray the sex lives of teens. Published in 1975, the novel tells the story of Katherine, who loses her virginity as a high school senior, and a friend, Artie, who is confused about his sexuality and tries to hang himself. "I would like my mother to read Forever so she can see what other kids in their teenage years feel and do," the student wrote. "I don't want her to read it and think that's what I want or intend to do. This book could point out what I am subjected to and, by refusing these things, show her that my values are worth trusting."

Online Interference

At first Jordan Green, a freshman at Camdenton High in central Missouri, didn't give it much thought. While researching a project on gay rights at the school library, she Googled the words and was surprised to see a web page pop up saying her search was blocked when she clicked on any of the results. She tried twice more, modifying her terms, but still nothing. After Jordan discussed what had happened with her father, he contacted a civil liberties attorney. The result was a first-of-its-kind lawsuit asking a school district to change its Internet screening system to eliminate bias and discrimination. "These filters are a new version of book banning," says the American Library Association's Pat Scales. "But it's different in that this is much more subtle and harder to identify."

District officials had not set out to block gay websites. Camdenton was following the Children's Internet Protection Act, a 2001 law requiring public schools to use filters to shield students from pornography and obscenity. But the district purchased software that had been programmed to group gay sites with sexuality and porn, thereby blocking access to them. Most schools, in fact, don't take an active role in choosing what should be permitted, leaving that job to the private vendors who sell the web filters. "There's a problem when schools won't allow educators to make decisions and let technocrats do it instead," says Craig Cunningham, Ph.D., associate professor of education technology at National Louis University in Chicago. "On the other hand, it's a daunting task if you want to protect kids from anything controversial."

In February a federal court ordered the school district to discontinue its filtering system "as currently configured," and it complied. Not all parents were pleased. Stacy Shore, a mother of three, admits that she didn't give it much thought back when she signed the release allowing her children to use the Internet at school. "I had vague visions of them going to sites about traditional subjects like the presidents or world geography," she says. "Maybe I'm behind the times, but I'd like it to be more like an encyclopedia in the library, not the information superhighway." For her part, Jordan went on to finish the project. "It was a nice feeling," she says. "Plus I got 100 on it."


Book bans are nothing new. In 1885, when Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the Concord public library in Massachusetts banished the novel from its shelves, denouncing it as "the veriest trash...more profitable for the slums than...respectable people." Below are the 10 most frequently challenged works of 2011, according to the American Library Association.

  1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r series by Lauren Myracle
  2. The Color of Earth series by Kim Dong Hwa
  3. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
  4. My Mom's Having a Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy by Dori Hillestad Butler
  5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  6. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  7. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  8. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
  9. Gossip Girl series by Cecily von Ziegesar
  10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Where Do You Stand on Book Banning?

On 's Facebook page, we asked where you stood on the book-banning debate. The response was overwhelming—and decidedly in favor of unlimited access and an individual's right to choose.

What happened to our First Amendment rights and a parent's responsibility to monitor her own children? Parents should do their job and stop forcing the rest of us to live in their "bubbles." If you don't want your child to read something, don't buy it or check it out of the library. And if your child chooses to sneak behind your back and read it, what does that say about your relationship? STOP BANNING BOOKS. —Penny App

School libraries should remove books they consider inappropriate from their shelves. In today's society, children are exposed to way too many inappropriate things at such a young age. They need to be allowed to be sweet and innocent for as long as possible, because the time will come too quickly when they will have to be adults. —Melissa Stripling

I think it is fine to ban books in public places, where all content should be appropriate to the general public. If someone wants to read a banned book, she can buy it. —Andrea McGuinness

Banning books and labeling it "protecting our kids" is just lazy parenting. —Kathy Balch

I don't understand why parents get all crazy about the books that they believe shouldn't be in the library, but don't care about what their child watches on television, what video games he plays or what their child is doing in a public place. [People should] parent their children rather than allow—or demand—that another entity or institution do the job for them. —Heidi Lucas Decker

It is hard enough to find books that engage a child. We need to encourage reading and have an array of choices for our children. My son likes Captain Underpants [a frequently challenged book]. It's not fabulous literature, but it gets him to read. Hopefully there's life after that! —Erica Rhodes Recker

I can see how a school library might not have certain books that are "inappropriate," but books should never be banned from a public library. —Kylie Borgman

As a parent to two teens and a 5-year-old, I believe book banning is unnecessary censorship. A library should be a magical place where ANYTHING is possible. Where ALL KINDS of books can be found. Where a kid can get LOST in the stories, in the words. Parents should be on hand to explain and give context to what their kids read. The Hunger Games is no more violent than classic books written by Stephen King. I am just glad that my kids love to read. In this day and age, that is a BLESSING. —Jaime Ayala

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.