People For the American Way Foundation

Celebrating Banned Books Week and the Freedom to Read 

News and Analysis
Celebrating Banned Books Week and the Freedom to Read 

Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read, is being commemorated this week at local bookstores and libraries and at online and in-person events organized by members of the Banned Books Week coalition. This year’s theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”  People For the American Way Foundation, which has a long record of defending freedom of expression for artists, writers, and activists, is a member of the Banned Books Week coalition.

Jason Reynolds, bestselling author of more than a dozen books for young people, is the Honorary Chair for Banned Books Week 2021. The recipient of an NAACP Image Award and several Coretta Scott King Award honors, he is serving a two-year term as the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His books dealing with themes of racism and police brutality are on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most challenged books of 2020.

In a post on the Banned Books Week website, Reynolds described what this year’s theme means to him: “It means that books are the tethers that connect us culturally,” he said. “Stories ground us in our humanity; they convince us that we’re not actually that different and that the things that are actually different about us should be celebrated because they are what make up this tapestry of life.”

Reynolds will be appearing at a Facebook Live event on Tuesday, Sept. 28 from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. eastern time.

An online event on Wednesday, Sept. 29 at 8:00 p.m. eastern will feature more than a dozen prominent journalists, authors, thinkers, and activists including Nicole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Janai Nelson, and Rashad Robinson reflecting on the power of ideas and the question, “What do you wish you had learned in school, but didn’t?” The event is sponsored by One World, the American Library Association, and Book People.

PEN America, a member of the Banned Books Week coalition, is hosting a number of Banned Books Week events around the country and online. Two of those events focus on current threats to honest teaching about racism in U.S. history.

Right-wing organizations have often employed censorship of books and school curricula in their efforts to turn public schools into culture-war battlegrounds. People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch has recently reported on efforts by national right-wing groups to enrage and mobilize conservative activists to oppose LGBTQ-inclusive policies and resist teaching about racism in public schools—and to try to take over local school boards.

On Banned Books Week’s Facebook page, you can also catch up on a Banned Books Week preview conversation about censorship of young people’s literature that was held last week with comics creator and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Yang, educator Alexis Huddleston, and parent Stephani Bercue, moderated by Betsy Gomez of the Banned Books Week Coalition and Nora Pelizzari of the National Coalition Against Censorship.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks attempts to ban books in schools and libraries and publishes an annual list of the 10 most challenged books, which often includes books targeted for including LGBTQ content. Last year the Office of Intellectual Freedom published a list of the 100 most banned and challenged books of the 2010-2019 decade.

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.

This year’s Banned Books Week comes at a time when some activists are wrestling with questions about how to respond to hate speech and other harmful speech. While conservatives rail against “cancel culture” in response to progressive opposition to providing platforms for writers or speakers promoting disinformation, conspiracy theories, and racist or anti-LGBTQ themes, many of those same conservatives are aggressively pushing to censor honest conversations about racism in U.S. history and institutions. Another controversy arose in the spring and summer when Amazon decided to stop selling a title with an anti-LGBTQ theme, while choosing to continue selling other titles with similar themes. The decision generated a complaint by the National Coalition Against Censorship, which noted Amazon’s unprecedented dominance of the book market.

Other members of the Banned Books Week coalition include the American Booksellers Association; American Library 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; People For the American Way Foundation; and Project Censored. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

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