Banned books becoming disturbing trend

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to assembly, and it has consistently been challenged by special interests. Among issues directly impacting the education of children is the question of literary censorship: what material is considered appropriate reading material in schools?

A book can be banned when a group of individuals ask that it be removed from a library shelf or not included in a school's curriculum. Of late, there has been an increase in requests that more titles be added to an already cumbersome list of banned materials. It is a troubling trend. More books are being banned in school districts and at local libraries than at any time since 1980. According to the American Library Association, 547 books were disputed last year, which was an increase of 100 titles from 2003.

This increasing demand for censorship can be traced to the publication of the Harry Potter series in the 1990s, books that are set in a realm populated by wizards and witches. Objections to J.K. Rowling's books were from individuals who believed Harry Potter encouraged young readers' interest in the occult. One example of the uproar caused by the Potter books is taken from a sermon entitled, "The Baby Jesus or Harry Potter?" The pastor stated he considered the Harry Potter books to be "an example of our society's growing preoccupation with the occult. The Potter books present witchcraft as a generally positive practice, while the Bible expressly condemns all occult practices."

In response to the increased interest in banning books, the American Library Association and other groups have established a Banned Books Week at the end of each September. This event takes the form of homage to authors, living and dead, whose works have been censored. Writers such as Mark Twain, Richard Wright, J.K. Rowling and Maurice Sendak are just a few of those whose works have been withheld from readers.

The reasons why certain individuals or groups believe a particular book is inappropriate are complex. Most objections to particular books are on religious or moral grounds. Muhlenberg High School in Pennsylvania is embroiled in a lawsuit over a young adult novel by Adam Rapp entitled, "The Buffalo Tree." Members of the school board, enraged parents and some students protest the explicit language and sexual overtones in this book.

On the other hand, teachers, students and the principal find the language reflective of young people and, therefore, likely to engage them. What transpires when reading some books is that wonderful connection between the written word and the human heart. "Black Boy" by Richard Wright is a timeless tale of childhood survival against a backdrop of poverty and racism whose graphic descriptions, violence and the death of a kitten have placed it on the banned list. The loss of this book is tragic since, when introduced properly to readers, the poignant memoir can transform lives.

Educators are generally very concerned with and give considerable thought to the books that are included in any given curriculum. I remember discussing picture books that had been recently placed on the banned list while I was an undergraduate. Examples of books that aroused ire at the time were "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" by William Steig, the New Yorker cartoonist: the police were dressed as pigs. Maurice Sendak's classic "Where the Wild Things Are" was banned for being too frightening for little children. "In the Night Kitchen," another of his classics, was banned from some libraries because is contains nudity: Mickey the main character loses his pajamas during a fall, and his private parts are shown. The drawings are innocuous and mimic the behavior of unselfconscious little preschool children.

Classroom teachers and parents can introduce books to children in context. In a classroom or at home, a mere discussion of why Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye" is alienated and feels the need to do anything possible to capture the attention of adults is far more profitable than withholding the book because of foul language. Similarly, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" often has been criticized as racist. One can understand it evokes memories of a time in the slave-ridden South that many would like to forget.

However, banning this book prohibits readers from seeing how Twain discusses racism without endorsing ii: he creates a relationship that sustains two marginal figures, Huck, and the runaway slave, Jim, and stretches across racial boundaries. As a child, books were my refuge from a motherless home and an absentee father. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn became intimate friends, for myself and for many others.

We do not know which book will literally save a life, transform someone's perspective or bring tears to the eyes of the reader. Let us leave it to the readers to decide. For specific information and resources about banned and challenged children's books, visit