The return to library shelves of two controversially banned novels – Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five – marks the start of America’s annual celebration of prohibited literature, Banned Books Week, on Saturday.
Twain’s comic short story told from the perspective of Eve was banned from Charlton Library in Massachusetts in 1906 after its trustees objected to illustrations of a naked Eve – or as the New York Times put it at the time, “her dresses are all cut Garden of Eden style”. When Richard Whitehead became a trustee of the library in 2008, he stumbled across the century-old controversy and decided to track down a copy of the banned book, complete with illustrations.
“Knowing that Banned Book Week was coming up in September [he] proposed the idea of having an official ‘unbanning’ of the book,” said the library’s director Cheryl Hansen. “On Tuesday, September 20, 2011 the board of library trustees unanimously voted to unban Eve’s Diary. I think that Mark Twain would be very pleased and I’m sure that he would have something humorous to say about it.” At the time, Twain wrote in a letter that “the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me”.
Eve’s Diary’s reinstatement follows the return of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic title Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler’s young adult novel Twenty Boy Summer – about two girls coming to terms with the sudden death of a loved one – to a school library in Republic, Missouri. Unlike the Twain title, these two novels were first banned not a century ago but earlier this summer, after a local resident called them immoral and said their presence on the school curriculum and in the library was “unacceptable, considering that most of the school board members and administrators claim to be Christian”.
A public outcry followed their removal and the books have now been reinstated – but in a restricted section of the school library and only accessible by parents. This has done little to satisfy freedom of expression groups, with National Coalition Against Censorship executive director Joan Bertin calling it a “ridiculous notion of a ‘compromise’”, which will mean that “a 17 year-old will have to bring in Mom or Dad to check out books of inarguable artistic and educational merit”.
Ockler herself said she was “extremely disheartened and frustrated” by the decision, which she called “appalling”. “Shelving the books in a restricted, parents-only area is still limiting access – it’s still censoring. In a country where the daily news media spotlight more violent, sexualised and sensationalised images than a teenager could ever find in the school library, does anyone truly believe that forcing students to ask parents to check out their books is appropriate?” she asked the Guardian. “We don’t prepare teens for coping with life’s challenges by hiding information or pretending that the issues explored in books don’t exist. Grief, death, war, sex, heartbreak, loss – these things happen in life. By this time next year, some of these students could be serving on the front lines in Afghanistan. Yet they need mum’s permission to check out a library book?”
The American Libraries Association tracked 348 challenges to books in the US in 2010, down from 460 in 2009. The book which received the most objections over the course of the year was the perennially controversial children’s book And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins bringing up an orphaned chick. More recent cases range from the removal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, from reading lists in Virginia schools for its anti-Mormon sentiments, to a Seattle mother’s complaint that Brave New World disparaged Native Americans, challenges to the Gossip Girl series in Florida and Mississippi and the Stockton, Missouri school board’s decision to ban Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian – a move which “deeply disappointed” the ALA. “Book challenges arise across the political and social spectrum,” said spokesperson Macey Morales.
Banned Books Week, which launches tomorrow, celebrates the freedom to read with events across America in libraries and bookshops and a virtual “read out” on YouTube, featuring authors including Judy Blume and Lauren Myracle. “The removal of one book is the equivalent of stripping away the rights of hundreds to choose books for themselves. As we have seen this year, too often the voices of a few have restricted the rights of many,” said ALA president Molly Raphael. “Library collections should reflect the diverse viewpoints of our nation. We may not share the same viewpoints, but we cannot live in a free society and develop our own opinions if our right to access information freely is compromised.”
Ockler agreed. “Banned Books Week is a great opportunity to bring attention not just to the books themselves, but to the importance of free choice, of standing up for the freedom to read and speak and think for ourselves. We enjoy many freedoms in this country, and we often forget that book bans and other infringements can still happen,” she said. “I’m grateful to the librarians, teachers, parents, students and authors who continue to fight the battle against censorship and who continue to encourage teen readers to explore and discuss important issues through reading.”
The Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010
1 And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
2 The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
3 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit
4 Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit
5 The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
6 Lush by Natasha Friend
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
7 What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones
Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
8 Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint
9 Revolutionary Voices edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: homosexuality and sexually explicit
10 Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: religious viewpoint and violence
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