By Jenny Neyman
The list reads like the syllabus of a class on great works of 20th-centruy literature: “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger, “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, and “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker.
But it’s not. Along with being universally acclaimed masterworks of English writing, these books also are the top-five most banned and challenged classic books, as tracked by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.
And it’s not just classics that have ruffled puritanical feathers. Every year the OIF compiles reports from libraries across the country on further attempts at censorship, and releases an annual list of the top 10 ban-requested books. The 2013 list comes from 307 challenges reported to the OIF, though it’s estimated that many ban requests don’t get reported. The list includes the “Captain Underpants” series of young-adult books, by Dav Pilkey, and “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins. In 2012, out of 464 reported challenges, the list included “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, and in 2011, out of 326 reported challenges, “My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy,” by Dori Hillestad Butler, made the top-10 list.
That’s not to say the books were banned, only that they were requested to be removed from circulation. It takes more than a complaint about a book being “sexually explicit” or “unsuited to age group,” or containing “offensive language,” “violence” or “homosexuality” — as are the most-frequently cited complaints in ban requests — to change a public library’s stance on intellectual freedom.
As the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights stipulates, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. … Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. … (And) libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”
“Public libraries do not censor. We try to provide something for everybody, from all walks of life,” said Rachel Nash, director of the Soldotna Public Library. “We live in a society where we have voters. It’s really important that they’re able to go somewhere and learn about information for free, somewhere where the collection won’t be biased and the people won’t be biased. So that’s really what we try to do, and that’s good for all levels, from kids all the way up to adults.”
Not only do they not censor, they celebrate the lack of censorship, as the Kenai Community Library is doing this week in participating in National Banned Books Week, observed Sept. 21 through 27. Monday through Friday this week the library will hold a free movie screening, complete with popcorn and drinks, of a movie made from a banned book.
“To celebrate our freedom to read whatever we want we’re showing movies that are based on books that have been banned in the past,” said Ryanna Thurman, library assistant for information technology.
The books highlighted in these films are “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, on Monday, “Bridge to Terabithia,” by Katherine Paterson, on Tuesday, “Matilda,” by Roald Dahl, on Wednesday, a modern comedic revamp of “The Scarlet Letter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, on Thursday and “The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Browne, on Friday. Screenings are at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 2 p.m. Friday.
“It’s just to celebrate our freedom to read. In the past there have been things that have been banned and it has been to the detriment of our society. We just really like to highlight the attitude that there shouldn’t be anything off limits,” Thurman said.
There are occasional requests to remove items from circulation at the Kenai library, Thurman said. Those requests are decided upon by the library director, but none of the recent requests — about five in the last eight years, resulted in removals. They were the DVD of the film “Brokeback Mountain,” the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, “How We Met and Other Stories,” by David Leithan, and “Notebook Girls,” by Julia Baskin.
Occasionally, though, some things just disappear, Thurman said.
“They don’t get challenged or anything, people just don’t like them so they just take them,” she said.
Most recently that’s happened with DVDs, including “Brokeback Mountain” and “Go Ask Alice” and the documentaries “Sicko” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Nash said that the Soldotna library gets occasional requests to remove a book, but they’re infrequent and usually regard an outdated item, or a book that someone feels shouldn’t be available in the children’s section.
There’s a protocol in place to deal with those requests. First, find out why the complainant thinks the item should be removed.
“If it’s because it’s outdated, we usually agree with them. But if it’s because of the content then we try to explain to them that we’re a public library and that there are other people who might like to read that book,” Nash said.
That explanation suffices for most complaints. The library only gets two or three of those situations a year, she said, and only one a year will take it to the next level of filling out a Comment on Library Materials form, where they note the title and author of the item in question, whether the complainant is representing themselves or an organization, explaining their complaint about the material and listing whether they’ve read the entire book, seen a review or whatever other source might be influencing their request that the book should be removed.
The form goes to the library director, who makes the decision. But if it’s a content complaint, it’s not likely to be removed, as the director is the one overseeing what materials are ordered in the first place.
That’s often based on reviews from various sources, like Publishers Weekly and Voice of Youth Advocates, or even reviews in Alaska media. Public libraries do try to be representative of their communities, Nash said, making sure to order items local readers will likely enjoy — for here, that would include books on Alaska, and the latest James Patterson novel, for example, she said. And input is gladly accepted, as part of the library’s ordering budget is reserved for requests.
But the library doesn’t avoid ordering something that seems interesting and has decent reviews because a patron might not like it.
“We’re never not going to buy something because we think someone’s going to object to it,” Nash said. “That’s exactly what we try not to do.”
The Kenai library has a similar standard in ordering materials, and in defending them if they’re challenged.
“(The library director) always wants there to be fair and balanced viewpoints from all perspectives, and that’s intellectual freedom. Libraries in general are very, very involved in keeping it that way, that everyone has materials that will give them viewpoints from every angle,” Thurman said.
Kids also are afforded that freedom. Thurman and Nash both said that it’s up to parents to limit their kids’ library materials if they so choose.
“Parents, if they don’t want their kids reading certain materials, then they are the ones who censor. We never say, ‘Sorry, you can’t check that out,’” Thurman said.
“It is the parents’ right and we respect that right, but we can’t be the gatekeepers,” Nash said.
By all means, talk to a librarian if there’s a concern about materials available at a public library, Nash and Thurman said. But don’t be surprised when the response boils down to a polite form of this: If you don’t like it, don’t check it out, but don’t expect to stop anybody else from being able to.
“We encourage self-censoring,” Thurman said.
Top 10 Most-Challenged Books in 2013
Compiled by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom:
“Captain Underpants” (series), by Dav Pilkey; “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie; “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E.L. James; “The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins; “A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl,” by Tanya Lee Stone; “Looking for Alaska, by John Green; “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky; “Bless Me Ultima,” by Rudolfo Anaya; and “Bone” (series), by Jeff Smith.
Banned and Challenged Classics:
The following titles, on the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, have been the target of ban attempts, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom:
“The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger
“The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
“The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker
“Ulysses,” by James Joyce
“Beloved,” by Toni Morrison
“The Lord of the Flies,” by William Golding
“1984,” by George Orwell
“Lolita,” by Vladmir Nabokov
“Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck
“Catch-22,” by Joseph Heller
“Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley
“Animal Farm,” by George Orwell
“The Sun Also Rises,” by Ernest Hemingway
“As I Lay Dying,” by William Faulkner
“A Farewell to Arms,” by Ernest Hemingway
“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston
“Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison
“Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison
“Gone with the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell
“Native Son,” by Richard Wright
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” by Ken Kesey
“Slaughterhouse-Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut
“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by Ernest Hemingway
“The Call of the Wild,” by Jack London
“Go Tell it on the Mountain,” by James Baldwin
“All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren
“The Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” by D.H. Lawrence
“A Clockwork Orange,” by Anthony Burgess
“The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin
“In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote
“The Satanic Verses,” by Salman Rushdie
“Sophie’s Choice,” by William Styron
“Sons and Lovers,” by D.H. Lawrence
“Cat’s Cradle,” by Kurt Vonnegut
“A Separate Peace,” by John Knowles
“Naked Lunch,” by William S. Burroughs
“Brideshead Revisited,” by Evelyn Waugh
“Women in Love,” by D.H. Lawrence
“The Naked and the Dead,” by Norman Mailer
“Tropic of Cancer,” by Henry Miller
“An American Tragedy,” by Theodore Dreiser
“Rabbit, Run,” by John Updike