Gary Wasdin/contributed photo

Challenged books and the freedom to read | Book Nook

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." "To Kill a Mockingbird." "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

  • Friday, October 21, 2016 3:06pm
  • Opinion

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Three very different books that share a common thread. Each year, individuals across the country take it upon themselves to decide what books you should and should not read. These are three that apparently you should not.

Yes, censorship and attempts at censorship are alive and well in 2016. In most instances, the censor is someone who is sincerely concerned about a societal issue and feels strongly that censoring a book, magazine, film, or artwork will improve society, protect children and restore their idea of moral values. However, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution gives each of us the right to read, view and listen to things that others might find offensive. No one, no matter how well-intentioned, can take away that right.

Public libraries around the country regularly face challenges to books in their collection. A “challenge” means that someone has approached library staff and asked them to remove an item from the library. According to the American Library Association, the presence of offensive language and sexually explicitly content are the reasons most often cited for challenging a book, and more recently, LGBT content.

Several well-known and beloved authors are among those whose books have most often been challenged, including Judy Blume, who has the dubious honor of having written five of the most frequently challenged books of all time. J.K. Rowling shares the honor with all seven of her Harry Potter books making the list as well. Of course, it isn’t just contemporary writing that is challenged. The list also includes books written by Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

Each year in September, public libraries recognize Banned Books Week in an effort to educate people on the principles of intellectual freedom and the freedom to read — principles that libraries take very seriously. Librarians believe that you, and only you, have the right to decide what you will read, and we vigorously defend that right. We work hard to ensure that no one should decide what another person can read, except for youth, in which case we firmly support the rights of the parent or caregiver to make those decisions for their child.

People sometimes think that librarians are endorsing certain opinions or ideas based on particular books in a library’s collection. This is never the case. Library collections are developed to include a broad range of materials with different ideas and perspectives. The only thing we do endorse is your right to read whichever of those items you choose. If you don’t see something you would like to read, ask! We will gladly search for the item in one of our libraries or try to add it to our collection if we can.

It’s great that people care about what they read and recognize that reading can have a powerful influence on our lives. We often take for granted our right to free and open access to information. As citizens, it’s good to step back now and then to consider the rights we enjoy, and recognize the people who are working hard every day to protect them.

Suggested reading list

The following books are frequently challenged each year. Take a moment to read a few and appreciate your right to make that choice for yourself!

• “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain — The classic adventure tale is worth a re-visit if you’ve never read it as an adult. Twain is a master of dialog and humor. Challenged for coarse language and racial stereotypes.

• “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser — This tragic novel is a masterpiece based on an actual crime, which formed the basis of the great film “A Place in the Sun.” Challenged for sexual conduct and topics of abortion and murder.

• “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin — A collection of extended interviews compiled by the author, introducing six trans teens and their experiences at school, with their families and more. Challenged for being anti-family, LGBT issues, sexuality and religious viewpoints.

• “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison — A story told from the perspective of Pecola, a young African American girl who feels inferior due to her appearance. Challenged for themes of racism, incest and sexual assault.

• “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel — If you’ve never read a graphic novel, this might be a fun start. The autobiographical story of the author and her closeted gay father is now a smash hit musical on Broadway. Challenged for LGBT content and violence.

Gary Wasdin is the director of the King County Library System.

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