AUGUSTA — If a book features sexual content or homosexuality, profanity or racial slurs, magic or violence, chances are someone’s tried to have it removed from a library shelf or school reading list.

Every year there are hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of challenges to books or other materials by people who want to see them barred from libraries or classrooms — a fact that libraries have highlighted this week during Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual celebration of the freedom to read.

Many schools and public libraries in the Augusta area have received complaints about certain books, but they rarely have risen to the level of a formal challenge, according to librarians and other officials.

Elizabeth Pohl, director of Lithgow Public Library in Augusta, said there have been perhaps four complaints in her 23 years at the library, all of which were resolved after conversations with the library staff.

“Oftentimes, I’ve found in this community, they just want to be heard and for the library staff to understand that not everybody finds everything appropriate that’s in the library,” Pohl said. “For the most part, our users are very respectful of the role the library plays in the free flow of information.”

While there have been some high-profile cases in Maine, attempts to ban books seem to be less common here, said Jim Campbell, chairman of the Maine Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

“Mainers, in my observation, are very much committed to letting people get along on their own as much as possible and not try to impose their will on others,” Campbell said.

Among the complaints at Lithgow, Pohl said, the only one she remembers specifically was about “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health.”

Pohl said a woman expressed concerns about the book in 2007 or 2008, around the same time that a woman was charged with theft for refusing to return the same book to the Lewiston Public Library because she thought it was obscene.

“It’s Perfectly Normal” is at No. 12 on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books of 2000-2009.

No. 3 on the same list, “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier, was the subject of the only formal challenge in any Augusta-area school district in recent memory.

Cony High School library technician Liz Soares said a teacher at Augusta’s Buker Middle School about 15 years ago objected to the novel’s use of obscenities and sexual references.

All Maine school districts are required to have policies about the selection and review of educational materials, including a process for challenges to materials. Typically, challengers must speak first with the person providing the item. If they are not satisfied, they can fill out a form outlining their objections, and the challenge is reviewed by a committee appointed by the superintendent.

The review committee makes recommendations to the superintendent, and the decision can be appealed to the school board.

Soares said members of the review committee in Augusta all read “The Chocolate War” and discussed its pros and cons.

“The teacher agreed the pros outweighed the cons, and the book stayed on the shelf,” Soares wrote in an email. “The pros were that it is a well-written, compelling story. It is one of the best depictions of male teenage angst in (young adult) literature. I was glad to see that the process worked as it was intended.”

Campbell said that like schools, most public libraries in Maine have established procedures and criteria for considering complaints, which is helpful when one arises. For example, school districts sometimes maintain lists of alternate books that students can read if the students or their parents object to the one assigned.

Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said a library worker in the school district received one such individual request, from a woman asking that her children not be allowed access to the “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” series in the school library.

Winslow High School Principal Chad Bell said that about 20 years ago, a parent objected to the use of a book in the school’s curriculum that treated the Bible as literature. Bell said he doesn’t know the substance of the complaint, but after talking about it with school staff, the parent came to understand why it was being taught.

The American Library Association received reports of 464 challenges to books in 2012, and they estimate that for each of those, four or five others remain unreported.

Attempts to remove books from libraries or schools sometimes garner national media attention. Since August, activists and officials in at least three states have objected to the inclusion of certain books, such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Cristina Garcia’s “Dreaming in Cuban,” on recommended reading lists linked to the nationwide Common Core learning standards.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]