Teenage students, either the late middle school ages or the high school ages, start the school year approximately during or just after mid-September, during the same date ranges that Banned Books Week is annually held. The year was 2009, and Banned Books Week was celebrated through September 26th to October 3rd in libraries across the United States to promote awareness that Americans have the freedom to read. This program is traditionally held through a library, incorporated in a bookstore sale of hot and controversial books, or is often briefly mentioned in class lectures by a few concerned teachers. The program main goal is to bring awareness on what books have been banned or challenged in the past, and most significantly, to bring current awareness about what books are protested at the moment, while at the same time teaching that the freedom to read is a valuable right for young Americans. No matter how popular Banned Books Week is to many adults, teachers, and younger and older students, a vast majority do not see any need celebrate the Banned Books Week by reading a book from the list, and some students may not be as enthusiastic about participating in reading at all. Since students are the very ones that are supposed to benefit from this reading celebration, it is a troubling problem if they do not understand the purpose of Banned Books Week, let alone if they do not even want to read at all. Banned Books Week can be more effective when educators develop the teens deteriorating reading habits, spark their interest in reading hot and controversial books, and teach them the importance of the what the freedom to read means for their future; otherwise the celebration is just useless for the teen student.
The freedom of speech seems to be such an important American value -- for it is included in the very first Amendment to the Constitution -- that book banning is often considered a challenge to certain freedoms; yet issues concerning teen access to questionable materials tend to be more controversial, meaning that there are differing opinions to what rules apply to what teens can or cannot read. School boards traditionally held the power to control what books can be included in or removed from libraries, but in the 1980s that began to change; in the 1982 Supreme Court case, Board of Education v Pico, it was ruled that, “If petitioners intended by their removal decision to deny respondents access to ideas with which petitioners disagreed, and if this intent was the decisive factor in petitioners’ decision, then petitioners have exercised their discretion in violation of the Constitution,” meaning it was now unlawful for an authority to deny access to any book for the sole purpose that they simply disagree with the book just based on the ideas or opinions held in the book (Ennis). That decision influenced more public action during the earlier eighties as well. Aware of the issues surrounding book banning and the case of Board of Education v Pico, the American Library Association pulled together records of complaints and challenges against books and posted lists of them in libraries across America. That flyer contained a list of the hundreds of books that were deemed inappropriate for the public or school library. Yet that list had an unexpected effect, in that it did not discourage reading controversial books, but rather started a new trend in reading and education. That is how the tradition of Banned Books Week started, by passing around of a list of “bad” books to all the libraries of America, and somehow the side effect was that it encouraged supporters of the freedom to read and write to mobilize into an effort to preserve the books that were being challenge, and thereby the program grew to an annual program designed to raise awareness on what books are currently being protested. That was the humble beginning of a nationwide annual celebration, which some educational community members consider to be a powerful demonstration of the right to freedom of speech in America, and it all started with a flyer with lists of books to beware of. Today the American Library Association still compiles lists of the hundreds of book complaints that arrive yearly and post them across the country (“Arts, Briefly”). The typical part of this celebration is to put copies of these books on display in the library with a banner that spells “Banned Books” across the display, along with posters, flyers, or folders of lists of the years most complained about books, and then library employees, teachers, and others encourage teens to read them. In some communities, a Read Out is incorporated in which participants read out passages from the books in question out loud, usually in front of a library or a book store (“Banned Books to Play a Role in Reading Event”). The American Library Association’s website shows postings on activities that are involved with the Banned Books Week celebrations: “Join us to kick-off Banned Books Week on Saturday, September 25, 2010, from noon to 2:00 PM, in historic Bughouse Square in Chicago…” is a posting about a scheduled read-out event, and it even announced that the event, “will host authors of the ten most challenged books of 2009, as they read from their work and share their experiences as targets of censors. The readings begin at noon and will be followed by booksignings by all the authors. City Lit Theatre Company will perform work from frequently challenged authors who couldn't join is in Chicago.” (“Banned Books Week Read-Out!”). That is what Banned Books Week is all about; it is about celebrating the books that others hate.
A particular individual who is active this effort to raise awareness of book banning to teens is the author Judy Blume, who is a popular author with a large teen-age audience, and happens to be currently at the top of the list book complaints list. She is an active member of the National Coalition Against Censorship and speaks out about what harmful messages that book censorship sends to young students. Expressing her feelings and concerns in one interview, she remarked, “I felt alone and frightened when my books first came under attack. I felt angry. But for many years now I've felt sad-sad for the kids-because banning a book sends such a negative message. It says to them, ‘There's something in this book we don't want you to know about, something we don't want to discuss with you.’” Blume urges that those concerned about censorship must speak out (Freeman). Judy Blume not only recieves criticism for her books, but also great repect, for she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s prestigious Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the first author of children books to receive the award. Blume’s books first come under attack in the eighties, by being placed on restriction in many schools, examples being Then Again Maybe I Won't and Deenie, both deemd inappriopriate for minors because the stories shared stories of teens going through puberty, with details on the mishaps, troubles, complications, and temptations of going through one’s teen years (“Prize for Judy Blume”). Judy Blume’s struggle with school censorship for her books – just because the book’s topics deal with what issues teens face regularly -- illustrates just how relevant and common censorship is to the educational life of every teen; that is why Banned Books Week is directed for the teen-age generation. Whether they know it or not they are affected by censorship.
Teenage students are one of most prone groups to feeling the effects of censorship in their academic, social, and spiritual lives, just because the nature of book challenging is primarily directed at preserving (or perverting as some would reword it) the child’s mind from questionable materials. A vast majority of the people responsible for attempted book banning are parents (or guardians), religious organizations, and socio-political groups or activists; their primary concern in most all cases seems to be that they do not want children, teens, or young adults reading books that they think have a negative influence (Doyle). Take the word of Robert Doyle, a representative of the American Library Association, “Sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections, and most occur in schools and school libraries,” so protestors tend to go after any book in the school library that readily appears to contain these matters; he includes that the protestor’s intentions tend to be good, but still that does not make censorship right (Doyle). Richard Dawkins readily assumes that the goal of someone trying to preserve (or pervert if you prefer to word it like that) the mind of a child is really in fact trying to control the child’s thoughts. Dawkins uses an example of indoctrination, revealing that, “Religious leaders are well aware of the vulnerability of the child brain, and the importance of getting the indoctrination in early,” and quotes James Dobson (founder of Focus on The Family), “those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience – what they see, hear, think, and believe – will determine the future course for the nation,” proving that the book protestor is doing so entirely for the young student (Dawkins 177). Therefore, this conflict between advocates of free speech (supporters of Banned Books Week) and those who demand the removal of the “bad influences” from the school library (opponents of Banned Books Week) is ultimately a battle for the course of the young student’s education. It is a competition for the mind of the teen. Therefore, Banned Books Week serves as an educational program intended to make the teens aware of what kinds of censorship and indoctrination that has been invisible to them, so that the young student can distinguish if it is right or wrong to challenge a book and determine their own educated perspective on the whole matter.
Nevertheless, the program often fails to even reach or to have a remote influence on the teen-age audience, because Banned Books Week is often used for advertisement, which simply does nothing for the education of the youth; instead the celibration is used for personal gain. Banned Books Week is used more as a tool for the enhancement and advertisement of books, making the books appear so hot that they should be restriticted, giving them more of an intellectual appeal than the “ordinary” or “clean” books. It is true that besides the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association also supports and sponsors Banned Books Week (Rubenstein). That indicates that there is a chance for a little profiteering. The marketing of hot topic books during this week can be profitable for booksellers, as well as encouraging more visits to a local library, and “banned” writers can enjoy the added publicity that their book is so hot and controversial, that it made it on the Banned Books Week shelf. This seems on the face of it to be more of a campaign for publicity, rather than an educational one.
Those that can take advantage of the free publicity surrounding Banned books Week recently have been political groups and campaigns that have learned to play on the publics learned fear of censorship. An example is how Banned Books Week turned political for the first time in a presidential campaign in 2008. The San Francisco Chronicle witnessed a political demonstration in San Francisco, commenting, “This year, the annual affair,” referring to Banned Books Week 2008, “was more timely than ever because of reports that Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made inquiries in 1996 about banning books from her hometown library in Wasilla, Alaska, while she was mayor.” San Francisco’s city folk, like most cities, tend to be rather indifferent about the controversial materials presented in books. Typical of big city communities, few people seemed to respond to or care for the Read Out that took place there; for hours, demonstrator read out loud from passages of the years most controversial books, however few city people would turn their head or listen. Although city folk might be more aware of happenings from all over the world, yet are oblivious to what goes on in their own community, they still understand that their rights and freedoms have been violated when censorship is enforced (Rubenstein). One member of the San Francisco community previously provided this following intense public statement: “People who really care about the availability of quality books should express concern over banned and challenged books all year long. Many of the books on the banned and challenged lists are classics, and the reasons for challenging many of these books are absurd. Young readers are smart enough to understand complex and controversial subjects. In truth, people who challenge and ban books are afraid of the ideas that these books contain. Unless people with broader views support the freedom to read all year around, society will suffer.” (Chonin).
Conservatives also respond readily to censorship issues, arguing that their point of view is often “secretly” restricted in library collections and the public has the right to protest and restrict material in any library. For instance, Linda Harvey, the president of Mission America, a pro-family organization, argues her opinion of the celebration, accusing Banned Books Week of being a biased program that “fails to recognize a form of censorship that occurs frequently in libraries: the censoring of books with conservative points of view.” Harvey provides reasons that, “This has been especially true concerning books about homosexuality aimed at young readers. Libraries carry many items espousing a liberal political point of view and very few espousing a conservative one. Libraries hide information about gay-themed books from parents and ignore the fact that many gay-themed books contain inaccurate information.” (Harvey). Banned Books Week is becoming more political exactly what it was not intended to be. It started as a program that educates members of the community of what books are the most controversial in America, not to be the controversy itself. Turning the celebration political defeats the trust and respect for the program, making many critics claim that Banned Books Week is hypocritical. Of course, parents and instructors should exercise certain positive discrimination when selecting books for the student’s positive education. A parent has the right to disapprove of any book that their children might read, and no teacher should be allowed to “force” a child to read something that a parent deems harmful to their child. Also, any school teacher can choose what books are, or are not, to be in the classroom. A science class, for instance, can remove a book by author J.K. Rowling, author of “Harry Potter,” from the classroom bookshelf, simply because the science class does not require any work of fiction. An English class can remove all copies of the “Origin of Species,” by Charles Darwin, off the shelves, because the content is presumably irrelevant to all the Shakespeare classics that the students will be reading in the English class ; even the next-door English class can remove a “Harry Potter” book from their classroom collection, if the book series is not assigned for any class assignments or lectures. What cannot happen is that the “Harry Potter” book be removed because someone disapproves solely because of the views expressed in the story. In case the reader of this article is not aware of the controversy surrounding the popular – and infamous -- Harry Potter series, then just know that the series is just one of hundreds of books contested as reading material unsuitable for the students, as well as the well reputed – and disputed – “Origin of Species,” and both, of course, have been challenged before. Stephanie Beckett, University of Texas student, is convinced that the celebration “is not a protest of governmental book banning, because such book banning does not actually exist in our nation. Instead, the week, sponsored by the American Library Association [ALA], seems to be a movement to stop private citizens from asking certain library collections to remove certain books from the shelves,” claiming that the public has the right to add or remove any book from a school or public library, democratically. “Banned Books Week is thus silly,” Beckett adds to her disgusts, “because some books should be banned from certain libraries. Also, these requests by private citizens (or "challenges," as the ALA calls them) actually just add to the public debate about books—the challenges certainly do not amount to censorship.” (Beckett). The more conservative position on the topic of book challenging is simply that “People may have to tolerate the existence of offensive speech in society as a whole, but they do not have to accept its presence in a library funded by their tax dollars.” (“Library Censorship Is Justified”). One should expect school officials to remove a book about making homemade explosives from a junior high library, and who can easily dispute the removal of a pornographic graphic novel from the classroom?
However, liberals and moderates, as well as conservatives have been guilty of playing the role of censor, and they cannot be ignored. The Bible has been one of the top challenged books in the country, by those who object to students reading it in public schools; one particular group of the gay rights movement wishes to see bibles censored because at least four verses explicitly portray homosexuality as a sin. One such instance of a legal action taken against the public display of bibles, was reported by Hal Lindsey (a conservative political analyst); “According to a December 2001 decision by a Saskatchewan court of appeals, the Bible is hate literature if it is quoted verbatim and in context when it is used to condemn homosexuality as sin,” so the more liberal groups are also guilty of playing hardball in the battle for censorship (Lindsey). Another book is actually the translation of Adolf Hitlar’s Mien Kampf which opponents of it’s release feared that allowing it to be republished would “fuel support for far-right groups,” therefore calling the book too dangerous to be read (Doyle). Therefore, do not accuse only one side of being too critical and ready to censor any book that they do not like. How is a teen going to determine their own judgments if they cannot read the books for themselves?
On a marginal note, book restrictions may not be as big as a problem as it was in the past, because challenges to books have dropped by almost one-half since Banned Books Week started in the eighties (“Arts, Briefly”). Banned Books Week seems to almost discredit or abuse the original educational purpose it was founded as by becoming a politicalized program that is based on someone else’s own opinion or agenda; maybe by exaggerating the claim that a multitude of books are being censored as we speak (note that many political groups exaggerate claims to fuel action, and Banned Books Week is not an exception). Still, as a side note, the ALA can only provide lists of book challenges that have been documented, and there is no telling how many parents (for example) prevent their children from reading books or argue with a teacher or a librarian about a questionable book that their child had read or was about to read, and so no one can fully know truly how many books have the status of being a challenged book. The ALA reports that around eighty-five percent of book challenges go undocumented; furthermore, other materials that are found in libraries are magazines, newspapers, movies, music, plays, and electronic materials, and challenges to these go unreported by the ALA (Doyle).
Yet the one group that often fails to be involved in this issue at all are the teen students. If teen students were the ones that were supposed to benefit from this program, then why are businesses and political groups actively participating and profiting, while many teens have never even heard of this celebration that has been going on in schools and libraries since the 1980s? In addition, teens seem to be disinterested in reading. Neil Postman whose book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, ( in this article, Postman’s work is cited in Silent No More, by author Rod Parsley). The book compares and contrasts the two popular and opposing view points characterized by the censorship issue: the first being the “Orwellian” point-of-view versus the “Huxleyan” point-of-view (the terms derive from the early twentieth century authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, who are considered the idealized pessimists of modern literature). Parsley, who blames the media for its negative influence on teens and education, uses an argument similar to Postman’s own argument that if people do not want to read, then that is worse than censorship itself. “‘What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one,’” is Postman’s startling commentary on what is taking place in the media saturated environment that teens have to face in today’s information age; “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism … drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” (Parsley 162-163). An example of this kind of environment can be found in any high school classroom. For instance, according to author James W. Loewen, teens are actually very interested in history, yet they do not like the lectures. “American audiences, even young ones, need and want to know about their national past. Yet they sleep through the classes that present it.” (Loewen 13). History, as well as many other studies, is focused on so many facts that are never remembered by teens, Loewen argues, therefore the faulty teaching of history to the teen demonstrates that the “Huxleyan” society described previously is really quite accurate and relevant. Loewen concludes that history is taught in a wrong way; “None of the facts is [sic] remembered, because they are presented simply as one damn thing after another. While textbook authors tend to include most of the trees and all too many twigs, they neglect to give readers even a glimpse of what they might find most memorable: the forests.” (Loewan 15). This tells the unfortunate story of how teens are experiencing, or not experiencing, all the books – or other sources of knowledge and information -- that society tells them to read, even through the Banned Books program. Teens may be too overwhelmed by so many books and so much information that they simply cannot or will not take it all in, and thus will never want to read any book; the result of that will be ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Thus, plain ignorance is the main obstacle to forming a student’s broadened, diverse, and enriched perspective and awareness of cultural debate; censorship may be just one of the products of ignorance and narrow-mindedness.
Thus the challenge is to increase the student’s enthusiasm for reading, not just to scare them with notions of good books being banned by bigoted people, because teens may be afraid to read books in the first place. Since reading books is a tricky and time and energy consuming process, some teens might wish that books were really banned in the first place! Nevertheless, teens actually love stories; it all depends on how educators present them to students. Banned Books Week is effective at educating students about their First Amendment rights, their right to read, and their right to disagree. Instead of advertising books to read, teachers can try getting students to participate more. Giving extra credit for a book report on a “banned book” is a reasonable and efficient method for encouraging reading during Banned Books Week, but nothing can compare to active participation like group out loud reading, advises author Judy Blume; “I can't tell you how many letters I get from children-as well as adults-who talk about their teachers reading aloud to them. A 34-year-old man just wrote to say he's still in touch with a teacher who read my Fudge books aloud to her class at the end of every day. He remembers the voice she invented for Fudge. Teachers who take the time to read aloud can introduce kids to the fun of reading. I remember one teacher who read Animal Farm aloud to us in sixth grade. A good reader can make anything come alive for students.” (Freeman). Classroom lectures during this celebration can include group book readings, out loud, or at least passages from the several different books. The students should also learn why what they have read is controversial and why the challengers considered the book to be bad for children, not just say that it is a “banned book,” because then it is possible for the young student to misinterpret the term, and assume that they are either not allowed to read the book or that the book must be bad stuff for it to be “banned.” Robert Lee Mahon demands that educators focus on teaching analytical thinking, because, “all conscious learning is analytic: ‘monkey see, monkey do’ means the monkey must watch, break the action down mentally, and attempt to reproduce it a step at a time, all while being constantly corrected …” (Mahon). How Banned Books Week is presented to teens needs to be carefully considered. Teens do not need advertisements for books with controversial publicity; rather they need to actually start by reading a book; That is why Banned Books Week is celebrated.
As a tradition that is almost unique to libraries across the United States, Banned Books Week can be readily introducted into the classroom, where teens can energetically participate in the analysis of the many differing ideas of many different books, and respect the fact that they are doing so despite that many others oppose and disagree. This program teaches teens that having diverse, rich ideas allows for a diverse, rich culture. However, teens themselves can shut out ideas as quickly and effectively as overt censorship can, for if they do not learn the necessary reading skills required for the complex task of analyzing books, they themselves will become fearfull or even hatefull of books, the very attitudes that educators intend to reform through Banned Books Week; unfortunately, the program presently takes on a more sociopolitical form, since it is now a controversy itself. The purpose is not to force a teen to read a “banned book” simply because it is a “banned book,” and it would do a great service to the cause of free speech to read it. Yes, the teen should follow his or her own conscience and own passions when choosing books, the ones that are relevant to their own lives and interests. Of coarse, the books that teens read should be relevant to the their studies; the point is not to give them a book they will not believe in, just because it is a “banned book,” so presumably by reading it, there would be an empowerment of the fight against censorship. The point is to keep books open and available for students to read and discover by their own will, and not by the will of other people. Nevertheless, it is amazing that a program that started out as a flyer that passed from library to library, listing the books that others say to watch out for, because the program would prove to help open up more books to young readers, and is celebrated as an example of the power of the freedom of speech in America.
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