We’re in the midst of Banned Books Week, the annual event that celebrates freedom to read and the value of free and open access to information.
The entire book community is united in this fight against censorship and associated ignorance, with librarians, publishers, and booksellers (to name but a few key areas of support) observing the liberty to seek and express ideas to the general public.
Librarian Judith Krug established Banned Books Week in 1982, with a handful of organizations, including the Library of Congress, sponsoring the event. The American Library Association describes it as a promotion of “the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular.”
By drawing national attention to the harms of censorship, Banned Books Week is able to address and highlight the importance of the fight against restricted access or even removal of books that could play a significant part in somebody’s life and/or development.
It’s no secret that books have been—and continue to be—banned, with Young Adult (YA) fiction making up an alarming portion of targeted titles.
“Censors aim to ban things they themselves are not in control of,” notes Charles Brownstein, Director of the non-profit Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) organization and member of Banned Books Week’s executive committee. “People may have some control over a particular person, but not the content of a book. This is why young people reading in their own time are among those most targeted by censors.”
Brownstein understands this all too well—in 2015 alone, the CBLDF has dealt with over two-dozen legal cases involving censorship.
“Censorship is happening each day in the United States, and Banned Books Week helps demonstrate to a larger audience the challenges faced every week. It brings together communities and like-minded individuals against those who restrict reading materials.”
A list of frequently challenged books is released each year, highlighting the issues and controversies around titles threatened with censorship and banning. Each title featured within has been targeted, with every case impacting real lives.
“A young person who reads, say, a humorous coming-of-age story that features gay characters might feel hurt if the material is taken away,” Brownstein notes. “They could be left feeling like they’re doing something wrong, and this creates a problem that wasn’t there before.”
Further concerns are spawned by the removal or restriction of access to these books in schools and libraries.
“Many young people don’t have their own source of income, so these places are relied upon heavily to provide access to this reading material. Taking it away can be deeply harmful.”
Librarians and booksellers also face risk. To be accused of selling or distributing inappropriate material could tarnish and even sabotage one’s reputation, career, or position of public standing.
Brownstein acknowledges those who censor are generally well-meaning people. “Taking away a book from, for example, your own child is one thing. But by attempting to remove the choice of reading material from everybody results in a complete and totally unfair disservice.”
Books featured in this year’s list include Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis for reasons including drugs, sex, and depictions of bullying. Brownstein and the CBLDF have been actively involved in legal cases surrounding Persepolis, along with several other well-known and widely acknowledged graphic novels. These include (but are not restricted to) Maus, in which cartoonist Art Spiegelman interviews his father about experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor; and Bone, Jeff Smith’s popular series that has been attacked for its perceived racism, violence, and political viewpoints.
Jeff Smith spoke of his reaction to hearing Bone had achieved the dubious honor of being one of America’s Top 10 frequently challenged books: "I was sitting in a room — a fairly large room, there was probably between 500 and 1,000 people in the audience — and there was all ages and races in the room, and everybody was just like: What??"
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples is another frequently attacked work, cited for being “anti-family, sexually explicit and unsuited for its intended age group.” Raina Telgemeier’s Drama was also accused of being sexually explicit.
Thanks to the efforts of the book community as a whole, progress is being made in the fight against censorship and restriction of information. But the battle is ongoing, and plenty more support is required to keep momentum on the side of those defending the freedom to express or acknowledge one’s ideas and opinions.
In the words of Charles Brownstein, “Creative expression deserves to be celebrated each and every day, not just over the course of one week.”
Banned Books Week may be on the rise, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. You can help and support the cause by simply spreading the word and generating further awareness of problems faced.
Financial assistance in the fight need not be expensive, either—Hundle Bundle offers “Forbidden Comic Bundles” starting at a mere penny, offering all manner of acclaimed graphic novels to pledging supporters.
Visit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s website for more information on the non-profit organization’s fight to protect the First Amendment rights of the comic book medium.