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Cause to celebrate?

stormcenterIf it’s time for Banned Books Week it’s also time for my annual bucket ‘o scorn for ALA’s  cynical exercise in spin. Like Bette Davis in Storm Center, “I’m tired. I’m tired and beaten. There’s no use pretending.” Now Davis, playing a beleaguered librarian trying to uphold the freedom to read in McCarthy’s America, was truly fighting the good fight (too bad she didn’t have a good script, though; the young boy driven mad by Red-baiters and setting fire to the library was a Bit Much). ALA, on the other hand, has simply set up its usual straw men in the form of its dramatic list of “top ten most frequently challenged books.” (The Association recorded 307 challenges in all but does not say how many challenges each book had.)

What bothers me most is the conflation of “banned” and “challenged.” Banned means the book has been removed from a library (or restricted therein), or–and less definitively to my mind–from a required or suggested reading list. Challenged means a citizen or group has ASKED a library in a “formal, written complaint” to restrict or remove a book from a library (or from a required or suggested reading list). There’s a big difference. Wouldn’t you like to know how many of these challenges resulted in banning? Beyond anecdotal evidence about some of them, ALA doesn’t tell us.

These “formal, written complaints” are generally done at the library’s behest on a form issued by that library as directed by its collection policy. Why do we get so bent out of shape when people actually use it? The answer is–and here’s the cynical part–that we don’t get bent out of shape at all, instead using these challenges to revel in our sense of cultural superiority and to raise a fund-raising alarum. No wonder ALA finds book banning something to “celebrate.”

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Nicely put, sir!

    Rachael and I were talking yesterday about this, and we started to wonder — it’s easy to put Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye on a Banned Books display and feel good about ourselves, but who making those displays is including Rainbow Party? The Anarchist’s Cookbook? Mein Kampf?

    But then again, I’m an even narrower constructionist when it comes to banned books. If for whatever reason, my county library decides not to carry To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s not like I can’t find another copy anywhere, or even at another library. Actual banned books are things like Tropic of Cancer (pre-1964), or Ulysses (pre-1934) — things you actually can’t get. But that’s just my increasingly grouchy rant.

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Oh, God, Rainbow Party. I had to stand up to Dr. Ruth herself on some cable news show for that book’s freedom to be read.

    But I can’t be as strict a constructionist as you, Sam. If your county library has chosen not to carry To Kill a Mockingbird for reasons of “partisan or doctrinal disapproval” (or FEAR of same) then I think it, as a branch of the government, is guilty of suppressing information. Not everybody can find another copy someplace else. The tricky thing, of course, is that libraries are completely capable of not acquiring (or removing from the collection) books of which they don’t approve or think will make trouble, claiming professional immunity for their “selection decisions.” Let me trot out once again the example from my first library job, where we did not acquire the graphic sex ed book SHOW ME! because it didn’t have an index.

  3. I really, really wish I could have heard that argument!

    You’re probably right in that I’m being a bit too narrow in my definition, especially since not everyone has the finances or mobility to just go somewhere else to get a book. And that’s both a funny and sad story — I think that most librarians probably have seen something similar, if not quite as egregious. Selection bias is a sadly real thing.

  4. Robin Smith says:

    And just today–and on another tangent–I had TWO PROFESSIONALS at my school “worry” because some of the books in their classroom were “on the banned book list” at the public library or on a list at NPR. They were worried that they were having books available in their classroom libraries that were a “problem.” I wonder how many people feel this way when they see the lists. The anxiety was palpable. And that wasn’t just me wanting to scream.

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Dr. Ruth was horrified at all these lipstick-and-blowjob parties going on among youth today, and kept yelling over me as I tried to explain that a) such parties are an urban legend, b) reading about something doesn’t make you go out and do it, and c) the whole point of THE RAINBOW PARTY was that such parties are demeaning and destructive and in any case the kids in the story chicken out and never get their party on.

    Robin, I worry way more about nervous teachers and librarians limiting access to books than I do rampaging crusaders from the Christian Right.

  6. Robin Smith says:


  7. Yes! Obviously I really love the aim of Banned Books Week, which is to acknowledge and celebrate intellectual freedom, but it makes it so difficult as a school librarian, because I cannot explain enough that no, the books on display are not BANNED, they are CHALLENGED in some places and we are showing you what they are because they may well be books that you enjoy or that are even on your English syllabus. And I’ve had way too many students than I’m comfortable with looking at the displays and saying, “Oh, I’m not allowed to read those?” I mean, a) do you really think that is the point of our library and of a library display, and b) why are you so complaisant about that?!

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