Banned Books Week 2020: September 27-October 3

By Gwen Vanderhage, MLIS

How Times Have Changed

Each year the American Library Association highlights one of its core principles—the Freedom to Read—during Banned Books Week. This event creates an opportunity to highlight current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools, and to celebrate the fact that these books remain accessible. Over the years, the media and the entire book community have taken up this opportunity to discuss censorship and celebrate titles that have been controversial over the past year. This year’s theme for Banned Books Week is “Censorship is a Dead End,” and features artwork that resembles a maze. Visit the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week page for book lists, downloads, and advocacy opportunities.

Looking at the ALA’s recent annual lists of top challenged books, it is striking that so many of the titles are children’s books. Most challenges to books come from parents concerned about the content of books accessible to young people, whether used in the classroom or shelved in the library. Prior to 2015, the majority of books on the Top Ten Most Challenged Books annual list resulted from concerns about occult themes, profanity, drug references, and depictions of sex. As pointed out by the National Coalition Against Censorship, since 2015, when the Supreme Court granted marriage equality rights in Obergefell v. Hodges, publishing has seen an uptick in LGBTQ+ stories for young people and a corresponding leap in challenges to the use of these books in libraries and classrooms. Since then, the percentage of the books on that list that are challenged because of LGBTQ+ content has risen to 80% of the list.

Controversy does still follow books deemed classics, which are on many high school reading lists. As recently as this spring, the board of the Mat-Su Borough School District in Palmer, Alaska, voted to remove “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, and “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien from the 11th grade reading list. After protests and testimony from teachers and the community, the school board decided to reconsider the books until May 2021, but did not return them to the reading list (source: Alaska Public Media).

Further discussion of problematic classics continues among librarians and the larger community, bringing fresh perspective to questions of censorship and how librarians treat controversial books in their collections. A recent article in School Library Journal (“Little House, Big Problem: What to do with ‘Classic’ Books that are also Racist”) highlights some of the different approaches being taken by librarians to “curate” rather than censor books with racist language or tropes. This includes those in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. Discussion of this topic within libraries is sure to continue over the next few years.

With so many libraries closed for in-person services and programs due to COVID-19, what will Banned Books Week look like this year? What is your library planning to draw attention to censorship and banned books?

See our list for the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019.