Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read, takes place this year from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3. People For the American Way Foundation is a member of the Banned Books Week coalition, which coordinates and publicizes Banned Books Week events around the United States. This year’s theme is “Censorship is a dead end. Find your freedom to read.”
Among annual Banned Books Week projects are the “Dear Banned Author” letter-writing campaign and the Stand for the Banned Read-Out, which invites readers to submit a brief video reading from a banned book or discussing censorship. Join the conversation on social media by following @BannedBooksWeek on Twitter and using the hashtag #BannedBooksWeek.
- Monday, Sept. 28, 6 p.m. EST. The National Council of Teachers of English will hosta Facebook Live conversation with Gene Luen Yang, author of “American Born Chinese,” “Boxers & Saints,” and “Dragon Hoops.”
- Tuesday, Sept 29, 6 p.m. EST. The National Coalition Against Censorship will host a Facebook Live eventat 6 p.m. EST featuring Grammy Award-winning musicians Portugal. The Man. Early this year, the band got involved in the campaign when the school board in its hometown of Wasilla, Alaska voted to remove five classic novels from the 11th grade reading list: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou; “Catch-22“ by Joseph Heller; “Invisible Man“ by Ralph Ellison; “The Great Gatsby“ by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and “The Things They Carried“ by Tim O’Brien. Through their foundation, the band helped provide thousands of copies of the banned books to students in the school
- Wednesday, Sept. 30, 1 p.m. EST. The Intellectual Freedom Roundtable and Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable will sponsor “Black People in Comics,” a conversation with Valentine De Landro (author of“Bitch Planet” and “X-Facto”), Johnnie Christmas (author of “Tartatus” and “Sheltered”) and Chuck Brown (“Bitter Root”).
- Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2 p.m. EST. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom will hosta Facebook Live event with Alex Gino, award-winning author of “George,” which led the most-challenged books lists in 2019 and 2018. According to the ALA, “The book has been challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy, for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character, for sexual references, and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint.”
- Friday, October 2, 7 p.m. EST. The Office of Intellectual Freedom will host“Scary Stories” watch party, a national watch party of the documentary about the banned and challenged series “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz.
People For the American Way Foundation’s “Book Wars” report, which was published several years ago, included this section on the impact of censorship challenges:
While individual challenges don’t always succeed in removing a book from a school curriculum or forcing a textbook publisher to alter its content, they can have far-reaching effects. Attacks on ethnic studies curricula or challenges to books that deal frankly with the lives and histories of marginalized communities can have divisive results beyond their original goals. For example, organizing a protest of a textbook that supposedly “promotes jihad” may not accomplish its stated goal, but might still succeed in stoking fear and resentment against Muslim Americans in that community.
Attacks on multicultural curricula in schools – like Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies classes – are joined by continuing efforts to ban books that acknowledge gay and lesbian families, teach about world religions, or deal frankly with the history of race in America. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, People For the American Way Foundation tracked challenges to books and curricula that included frank discussions of sexuality, race, and the less palatable truths of American history. In the 2000s, challenges focused also on books accused of promoting the “occult” or “undermining” Christianity, leading the Harry Potter series to top the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the decade.
One common theme among many challenged books is their frank portrayals of the experiences of marginalized people. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye are unflinching explorations of being a Black woman in America. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicles a Native American teenager’s experiences living in an impoverished reservation, while going to school in a wealthy nearby town. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores African American identity in the mid-20th century. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, is a landmark piece of Chicano literature. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian tale about the oppression of women. Marjane Satrapi’s renowned graphic novel Persepolis, is about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.
The American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, leading members of the coalition, compiles lists of books that librarians and the media report have been challenged. The ALA kicked off 2020’s Banned Books Week by releasing a list of the top 100 most challenged books over the past decade. The top 10 challenged books of 2019 are:
- “George” by Alex Gino
Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure.”
- “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin
Reasons: challenged for LGBTQ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it is “sexually explicit and biased.”
- “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo” by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller
Reasons: Challenged and vandalized for LGBTQ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning.
- “Sex is a Funny Word” by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth
Reasons: Challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate.”
- “Prince & Knight” by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Reasons: Challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint.
- “I Am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
Reasons: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged.”
- “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones.”
- “Drama” written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
Reasons: Challenged for LGBTQ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals.”
- The complete “Harry Potter”series by J. K. Rowling
Reasons: Banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals.
- “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole
Reason: Challenged and relocated for LGBTQ content.
Other members of the Banned Books Week coalition include the American Booksellers Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of University Presses, Authors Guild, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Freedom to Read Foundation, Index on Censorship, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, PEN America; and Project Censored. Banned Books Week is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress
People For the American Way Foundation and its advocacy affiliate People For the American Way have a long record of resisting censorship and defending freedom of expression for artists, writers, and activists—and the freedom of students to read and learn. Among PFAW Foundation’s earliest projects was a series of ads promoting “freedom of thought, the right to have and express your own opinions.” Produced by Norman Lear and directed by the late Jonathan Demme, the ads featured recognizable names like Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, and Goldie Hawn, along with non-celebrities talking about their taste in music, sports and eggs.
For nearly 40 years, People For the American Way Foundation and People For the American Way have fought efforts to ban books and to insert right-wing ideology into public school curricula. Here are some highlights of our three decades of fighting censorship in schools:
- 1982: PFAW Foundation fights attempts by Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly to censor public school textbooks across the country. PFAW Foundation also helps to move Texas toward higher standards for public school textbooks, resulting in improvements felt across the nation.
- 1985: PFAW Foundation’s “Consumer Guide to Biology Textbooks” reveals that half of high school biology textbooks do not adequately cover the theory of evolution and one-sixth do not mention it at all.
- 1990: PFAW Foundation battles censorship attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts led by right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and establishes “artsave” to help artists and organizations across America resist censorship threats.
- 1993: PFAW battles Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and other groups under the Radical Right banner in their attempts to censor public school curricula through local school board takeovers from New York to Colorado.
- 1996: PFAW Foundation launches the “Good Schools” coalition to oppose Christian Coalition attempts to take over the New York City school board.
- 1997: PFAW Foundation’s lawsuit on behalf of citizens in Lee County, Florida, halts the school board’s unconstitutional attempt to use the Bible as a history textbook in public schools.
- 2000: PFAW Foundation turns the national spotlight on the unconstitutionality of teaching Creationism as science in public schools by sponsoring “Origins,” a theater performance at the University of Kansas, broadcast live over Kansas television and radio.
- 2010: PFAW Foundation investigates new attempts to insert creationism and faulty history lessons into Texas textbooks, which could imperil the education of students across the nation. A PFAW Foundation report helps to elevate the issue to the national level.
- 2013: Working with the Texas Freedom Network, PFAW Foundation delivers 300,000 petitions to the Texas State Board of Education urging it to improve science textbooks that properly teach the theory of evolution. The board ultimately approves accurate books, a victory for students throughout the state and country.
- 2013: The Randolph County, North Carolina, board of education voted to reverse its decision to ban Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel Invisible Man from school libraries after PFAW Foundation, the American Library Association, the Kids’ Right to Read Project and others urged the board to reconsider.
- 2014: The Watauga County school board narrowly voted to uphold the teaching of Isabel Allende’s acclaimed “The House of the Spirits,” after the author and many supporters, including People For the American Way Foundation, waged a campaign against censorship of the book.
Beyond the Banned Books Week activities mentioned above, here are some things you can do to fight censorship in your community:
- Attend school board meetings. School boards and other school decision-makers need to hear from parents, students, and community members who oppose censorship. Attend school board meetings and stay in touch with board members and principals — even when there are no censorship challenges — to let them know that you care about fair, accurate, and inclusive schools.
- Stay informed. If a parent or activist group challenges a book in your community’s school or district, read the book and learn about its author and its history. Then share what you’ve found with fellow community members and the local media. A strong, well-informed argument is always an effective weapon against misinformation and prejudice.
- Make some noise. Start a petition among students and parents in your school or district in support of a challenged book or curriculum, and tell the local media about it. You could also consider holding a protest in favor of the challenged material. In most cases, activists challenging books represent a small fraction of a community; it sends a powerful message when the rest of the community speaks up for its values.
- Look for outside voices. While the most effective arguments against censorship are made by local students and parents, in some cases it can be helpful to bring in outside experts. Consider inviting available authors of challenged works to join a discussion in your community or to send a statement to school leaders. Free speech advocacy groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association can provide resources and advice on how to fight for free speech in schools.
- Run for office. If you don’t like the way your elected officials handle censorship challenges, consider becoming an elected official yourself! Run for school board or volunteer to serve on a school committee that handles challenges against books.