26 September 2010

Think for Yourself--Banned Books Week

I love the catchphrase for this years' Banned Books Week (25 September - 2 October, 2010.) Think for yourself. Because that's really what book banning is all about, isn't it--the desire to influence how people think. Advocates of removing books from libraries have convinced themselves, and then try to convince everyone else, that they are somehow serving the common good by recognizing a threat and removing it before it falls into the wrong hands. Wow. Thanks. But you know what? I'll figure it out on my own, ta. There's only one way to decide what you agree with, which values you value, and that's by coming face-to-face with those you don't. If someone else has already made that determination, then what has really been learned? That they know best. For you, for your children, for the whole wide world.

My one experience with a book challenge was pretty benign compared to irate parents, brimstone fueled editorials, or waffling school boards. But it was indicative of the cowardice which I think is at the heart of  book challenges. Yes, I said 'cowardice'. If a person is so afraid of the written word that they would rather eliminate it than think about it--that is cowardly.

One day a book was returned with a sticky note attached to the front cover which said: "Bad word in this book." That sticky note was damning. To me, sensitive professional that I am, it implied that I had erred in my duties, and the patron was taking it upon themselves to gently point that out before calamity crashed down upon me. It also implied an expectation that I would efficiently yet quietly take care of the problem, just as I had been efficiently yet quietly made aware of its existence.

The book in question was Piggy by Mireille Geus, a 2008 import from the Netherlands about an autistic girl who is bullied and manipulated by a new girl at school. Since a gauntlet disguised as a sticky-note was flung at me, what else could I do but take a closer look at the book? The first thing I did was to check if I had ordered the book for the Young Adult collection and it had inadvertently been cataloged in Children's. Nope. Target audience is grades 5-8. Next, I checked the professional reviews, on the basis of which I had purchased the book. No mention of offending language in any of them, which made me think that it was not gratuitous and probably not worth mentioning. There was nothing really left to do but sit down and read it.

Indeed, right around page five, there is a very bad word. It is uttered by the bully Piggy herself, who is so transparent in her usage of the word. She wants to shock. And she does. The protagonist doesn't know what to make of her. But the reader does, by the efficient use of one, well-placed curse. A point which was clearly missed by the writer of the sticky note, as was the book's redeeming, timely message about bullies and the children who learn to stand up to them. I don't like swearing, but I do like the efficient use of language. The book went back on the shelf.

I'd be lying if I said I'm sorry that was the end of the matter. I don't look for fights. I alerted my director to the situation, in case a more formal protest followed. But nothing did. To be honest, a challenge might have done Piggy some good. Circulation records indicate that the book last went out over a year ago. It has only circulated 6 times in two years. Only three other libraries in our network own the book: two put it in YA, one other in Juvenile, like I did. It hasn't circulated much anywhere. But it's on the shelf waiting, and when it next ends up in the hands of a reader, I hope it leaves an impression beyond a single four letter word. It should, in the hands of a perceptive reader, who has been allowed to think for his or herself.

So, in honor of Banned Books Week, I would like to remind everyone that we are free to read whatever we want in this country. And if you take a look at some of the most frequently challenged and banned books in recent years, you might be surprised to see what made the list and why. If any of those books mean anything to you, think what you would have missed if some know-it-all censor got to it before you did. What if you never got to read To Kill a Mockingbird because someone objected to racist language? Or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl because she writes about puberty? Talk about missing the point!

I, for one, like to think for myself. This week, and every week.


Sam and Boo Book Reviews said...

Thanks for the review/anecdote about Piggy. It looks like something I very much have to read.

The Bumbles said...

Well said. I feel that people acting out of fear miss great opportunities to dispel the very things they are afraid will happen.

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