The American Library Association promotes Banned Books Week every October. I’m a school librarian, and last fall I created a presentation and an activity for middle and high school students to explore the issue of censorship.

The library staff put a variety of books on the library tables, and students — in small groups — examined them. They identified the books they thought had been challenged in some way, and then reported back to the rest of the class.

But we had been sneaky. At some time, all of the books on the tables had been denounced as obscene, violent, unpatriotic or one of dozens of other forms of condemnation.

That’s the problem with censorship. It knows no bounds.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee of the Maine Legislature recently quashed a proposed censorship bill. As the ACLU of Maine described it, the bill “would ban ‘obscene’ books from Maine public schools by removing the exception that allows the use of ‘obscene’ materials for educational purposes in public schools.” In its original form, the proposal would have allowed teachers and school administrators to be charged with a felony if they exposed students to violent or sexually explicit literature, art or films.

Note the quotation marks. Obscenity is a fluid concept. It’s a matter of opinion. It is defined in the eye of the beholder. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in an obscenity ruling in 1964, “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture in this case is not that.”

In my presentation to the students, I showed a YouTube video of author and illustrator Dav Pilkey. He starts by saying his “Captain Underpants” series was the “most complained about book” in 2012 and 2013. The target audience for this series is 8- to 10-year-olds. What’s the fuss over “Captain Underpants”? Some adults don’t like toilet humor. Or they think the books encourage children to be disobedient. One of the books mentions that one of the protagonists is gay.

Pilkey responds to attempted censorship with humor, but spot-on common sense: “Everybody doesn’t always like the same things.” He draws censorious adult cartoon characters who say things like, “I don’t want children to read this book.” By making what Pilkey calls “a simple change” to “I don’t want my children to read this book,” the character is free to make his own choice, without affecting the rights of others to make theirs.

Too many people want to make this issue complicated. More than 300 book challenges were reported to the ALA in 2017, but there probably were many more. A challenge occurs when somebody wants a library, school or bookstore to remove a book from its shelves.

Most libraries have policies to deal with challenges. Several stakeholders (librarians, teachers, parents, administrators, community members) read the book and then meet to decide whether it should stay or go. Patrons have a voice, but not a right to have a book removed simply because they don’t like it.

The Wikipedia article on the most commonly challenged books in the U.S. lists too many to count — more than 200. Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” has been decried for its “pro-Communist views.” Interestingly, it was an important book to the late Republican Sen. John McCain, a true American hero.

This is how nonsensical attempts at censorship can be. Would the censors have preferred that Hemingway took the side of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War?

The book “George,” by Alex Geno, has been criticized for including a transgender child as a character. The Harry Potter series features witchcraft and magic. Shel Silverstein’s poetry anthology, “A Light in the Attic,” is violent and encourages disobedience. My favorite: The Bible should be yanked from shelves because it has “a religious viewpoint”!

I read “Go Ask Alice” as a teenager and was totally shocked by it. But it ensured that I’d never run away from home. “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote, is violent. It’s the story of four brutal murders and their aftermath. Reading it as a teen, I worried that I’d be murdered in my sleep. I wasn’t, and it remains one of my favorite books to this day.

I would never question the right of parents to control what their children read or view. But no one has the right to impose their personal beliefs about what is right and what is wrong on others.

Children sometimes do read and see things that disturb or confuse them. When they do, parents can step in, to discuss and explain. And to teach them that, while freedom isn’t always comfortable, it’s always worth protecting.

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].

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