“This is an outrage,” I said to Rich over breakfast on Sunday. “Books are being banned all over America, and nobody’s ever challenged a single one of mine. What am I doing wrong?”
A few days earlier I’d noticed the sign below in a bookseller's window. Googling book banning in the land of the free, I was aghast at how widespread it has become.
“Would you like me to go down to the local school board and lodge a complaint about your books?” Rich offered.
“Thanks,” I said. “But as far as I know, the schools around here don’t actually own any of my books, so it doesn’t make much sense to demand they pull them off the shelves.”
“When did sense and logic have anything to do with book banning?”
He had a point. Since Pen America started tracking public school book bans in July 2021, the intellectual freedom advocacy group has recorded more than 4,000 instances, and often the reasons given are laughably thin.
Racial themes got To Kill a Mockingbird yanked from school libraries in Virginia and Mississippi. (Because … why? They think race is no longer an issue? Or they believe 1930s Alabama got it right?) Of Mice and Men is challenged for naughty language and being “anti-business” (although it’s sold 7.5 million copies). The Catcher in the Rye was attacked for undermining moral codes and family values. (Because what teen boy thinks about sex?) Gay characters made Brideshead Revisited controversial. (Because what teen boy thinks about sex with his best friend?). Some object to The Handmaid’s Tale for portraying ultra-fundamentalist Christians becoming overzealous. (Good thing that never happens in real life!)
Remember when teachers were urging us to read those books? They weren’t trying to undermine our moral fiber or amplify our profanity vocabulary — they were trying to help us learn to grapple with complex relationships and uncomfortable truths.
Take Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale, Art Spiegelman’s sensitive, Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about his father surviving Auschwitz, in which the Germans are presented as cats and the Jews are mice. “A Tennessee school board of trustees banned Maus from its 8th-grade curriculum. They cited “rough language”, the “unnecessary” profanity of 8 words like “damn,” mentions of violence, and a small drawing of a nude cat — of all things,” wrote J.J. Pryor in Medium. “It’s a good thing those 8th graders don’t have access to the internet and have never heard of the word ‘porn,’ right?”
Read any good t-shirts lately?
Could outlawing books possibly be politically motivated? It turns out 40% of book challenges are linked to legislation or political pressure exerted by elected officials, and 73% of the 50 groups pushing to get rid of “inappropriate material" are new, formed since 2021. Things are heating up. I Googled book burning and found Tennessee pastor Greg Locke. Remember him —the guy banished from Twitter for insisting Covid vaccines were sugar water? Well, he’s back in the limelight, making a bonfire of Harry Potter and Twilight books in the name of religious freedom.
“Sadly not all nutters are harmless eccentrics like ourselves,” I said to Rich. “Some have really gone over to the dark side.”
To cheer ourselves up, I suggested a visit to the Alameda branch of Books, Inc., the West’s oldest independent book store. There I spoke with Larry, the store’s buyer, about what’s being banned these days. “Mostly it’s about gender and racial issues,” he said. “The world has changed drastically in recent decades; kids who don't learn about it are really at a disadvantage. Cultural ignorance can be perpetuated through the generations.”
The store puts up a Banned Book display every year, and I’m happy to report they’re not alone. “Banned Books Week,” say the organizers, “brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. The next Banned Books Week will be held October 1 – 7, 2023. The theme of this year’s event is “Let Freedom Read!”
“Why is it that people who were ready to attack sales clerks over their freedom not to mask up during Covid now want to constrain other people’s freedom to read books?” Rich asked. “Talk about the irony department!”
Public libraries are caught in the crossfire. “Every day professional librarians sit down with parents to thoughtfully determine what reading material is best suited for their child’s needs,” said American Library Association President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada. “Now, many library workers face threats to their employment, their personal safety, and in some cases, threats of prosecution for providing books to youth they and their parents want to read.”
Many of those threats involve the works of Judy Blume, whose iconic, humorous, and sympathetic coming-of-age books caused Time to name her one of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2023.
“I learned about menstruation from Judy Blume,” said Willow, a Books, Inc. staffer. “They didn’t tell us anything in school; apparently girls are not supposed to hear about it until after they’re twelve. Which is ridiculous; my niece got her period when she was eight. My mother sat me down and gave me Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. She told me to read it and come to her with any questions.”
Wow. I thought about how different my life would have been if Blume’s book had come out a few years earlier. My generation had to flounder through teen angst, budding sexuality, self-doubt, and countless other issues without much guidance. The nuns at Sacred Heart didn’t explain anything. My mother abandoned the topic after a brief, clinical description of menstruation that included a cautionary tale about her own mother’s first time. “Nobody had ever told her anything about it, and she ran downstairs and burst into the dining room — where her mother was entertaining guests — and shouted, ‘I’m bleeding! I’m bleeding!’” Well, OK, at least I was spared that!
Since its publication in 1970, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has often been banned, including by the school Blume’s own kids attended. Today millions of preteens read it as a rite of passage, and it’s just been made into a movie earning rave reviews.
Which tells me that maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. If we know anything about teenagers, it’s that they love forbidden fruit. So do lots of adults, come to think of it. Every time someone says a book is dangerous, I suspect people start thinking, “Say, maybe I should read that one!”
Click here to discover your new favorite banned books:
American Library Association’s Top 100
Let’s keep these great works alive. Check them out of the library, borrow them, buy them, pass them on, and above all, talk about them. If we know anything about the future, it’s that facing it is going to require plenty of wisdom, courage, and grace. You’ll find plenty among these pages. My only regret is that none of my own books are on these lists. Maybe someday.
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS' WORLD TOUR SO FAR
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When Pigs Fly (Yes, They Can!) (Sacramento Pig Races)
Do You Believe in Magic? (Alameda's Macabre Market)
My Close Encounter with the Skeptic Society (Outer Space)
The Nutters' Guide to Modern Comfort Food (My Kitchen)
Relationships: Do Humans Stand a Ghost of a Chance? (Hangtown)
For Nutters, There's No Place Like California (Petaluma Chicken & Egg Day)
Can Artificial Intelligence Help Me Plan the Next Nutters Tour?
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Spain Never Runs Out of Offbeat Curiosities (Zaragoza, Barcelona, Tarragona)
I Travel Deep into the Heart of Nuttiness (Palencia & Pamplona)
Road Warriors: Let the Good Times Roar (Léon & Oviedo)
Travel Alert: You Can't Always Get What You Want... (Madrid & Burgos)
Gobsmacked at Every Turn but Embracing the Chaos (Jaén & Valdepeñas)
All Aboard for the Nutters Tour of Spain (Packing & Organizing)
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