Investigating the fine line of legality in the SF Bay Area

Banned Books: It’s All About Perspective

July 4, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird. Catch-22. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What do these novels have in common? They have been exceptionally influential to students nationwide in and out of the classroom – and they have all been banned.

The history of banning books has been a long and arduous one. Qin Shi Huang, emperor of China in 200 BCE, destroyed Confucian texts during his reign. Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola burned thousands of books in a Bonfire of Vanities in 1497. Jose Luandino Vieira was sentenced to prison in 1963 and later exiled for criticizing the Angolan government in his novel Luuanda.

Although these famous examples may seem distant, the United States also has a long history of banning books.  There is no national legislation banning books, but on a local level, school districts, libraries, churches and other organizations have mandated such censorship. The American Library Association (ALA) has recorded 311 book challenges in 2014 alone, ranging from a failed challenge to remove The Kite Runner in A. C. Reynolds High School in North Carolina to seven books being banned in Highland Park High School in Texas.

According to Regina Roberts, a bibliographer and librarian at Stanford University’s Cecil H. Green Library, removing unpopular or alarming books is “basically erasing [the author’s] history, that they exist and that their ideology … exists.” For Roberts, including books with all different perspectives, including ones from hate groups, is an opportunity for learning.

“[One] can teach about the negative aspects of hate speech or the negative aspects of the violence that those documents incite,” Roberts said. “It’s not that you’re supporting what they’re saying necessarily, but erasure of that moment is also pretending people with those views don’t exist. To pretend that is more dangerous than to know what they think.”

Some parents and organizations, on the other hand, have different perspectives. Hongmei Fan, mother of two, feels that because libraries are partially subsidized by public dollars, parents have the right to challenge inappropriate library books. Fan said that she defines inappropriate books as including “racist words and sexual material.”

This ideology extends into the classroom as well. “Parents should vote on the book curriculum instead of the school board deciding,” Fan said. “That would be more democratic.”

An organization called Speak Up for Standards has a similar mission of involving more parent participation to replace controversial texts with “selections reflecting community standards and school conduct policies.”

Yet students such as rising high school senior Esther Kao have found that the diversity of material found in libraries and schools has profoundly shaped her perspective. “Reading books that showcase the seamier aspects of life has definitely broadened my worldview,” Kao said. “I have become a much more empathetic, open-minded person.”

Despite the spectrum of views on book censorship, Roberts ultimately believes that these conflicts can be “teachable moments.”

“Whenever a book is being targeted as something that should be censored, there’s probably something important about that book,” Roberts said. She noted how banned books lists feature a number major literary figures who have made important contributions to literature.

To address tension between those who support and don’t support book banning, Roberts suggested referring to the ALA Intellectual Freedom Handbook as a guideline on book censorship for parents and school boards. Trying to reconcile drastically different perspectives on certain books can be difficult, and so is making sure that students, teachers and parents place controversial texts in context. But in the end, we must place hope in the ability of this generation and the next to think critically about the books and world around them.

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