Banned Books Week Is About Censorship at Public-Funded Institutions, Not Your Local Target

There are real critiques of the event, but this ain't it.
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Hosted by the American Library Association and libraries around the country, Banned Books Weeks is devoted to bringing awareness to book censorship in public spaces. Started by Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) Director Judith Krug in the 1980s, the week coincides with National Library Card Sign-Up Month and many students’ first month of school. The ALA celebrates by publishing stats on challenged books—books that have faced documented requests to be removed from schools or libraries—and how to fight censorship.

43% of challenges are aimed at public libraries, 38% at schools, 15% at school libraries, 2% at academia and 2% at all others. Very few challenges get public to the degree that news coverage occurs, though, and many go unreported to the ALA. Also included are breakdowns of who challenges books, programming, social media posts by libraries, etc.

chart showing who starts challenge. (Image: American Library Association.)

Criticism of Banned Books Week

The week is not without its critics.

Some of it is very valid. For example, librarian and writer Miss Julie wrote in her 2018 blog that the language and imagery around the week often are in bad taste, inaccurate, and confusing to library patrons. Since her post, this appears to have changed, as this year’s colors and language seem to address this with more of a feel of uniting around books, but there are still the issues of the word “banned” verses “censored,” the fact that BBW yields very different results online, and more.

Other criticisms come from every side about particular texts. I’m talking about classics that discuss race like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Both books are frequently banned from classrooms and school libraries. On one end of the spectrum, you have parents upset because the stories show the horror of both the time of slavery and the Jim Crow south. On the other end, you have parents concerned about the 219 uses of the N-word contained therein, and that schools choose white savior narratives rather than books by and from the perspective of Black people.

Recently, our very own Princess Weekes did a video on each of these books’ legacies and criticism for contemporary use on the Storied (PBS) YouTube channel. In both, she gives context to the books in their time and use today.

Conservative voices (the same that tend to ban books and write legislation codifying the practice) complain about how the list of promoted books is made up of so-called leftist ideas. So, do they also want more right-leaning books banned? This makes no sense as to something to complain about. Want less attention attracted to these books? Pro-tip: Ignore them and stop making them forbidden fruit.

Others have tried to redirect the conversation to non-public entities like booksellers, publishing houses, and other private businesses, and … sigh.

The First Amendment

This issue is discussed (and misunderstood) when talking about social media, so before diving into this issue with books, let’s have a refresher. When an organization/person chooses to hold/stock, give voice to, etc. a person and/or their work, they are giving it a platform. This is often done for money, but sometimes it is because of a shared interest in the person or subject. If they change their mind or choose to never engage with them (for whatever good or bad reason), they are not infringing on anyone’s freedom of speech. They are simply exercising their own freedom not to be associated with it.

While they may get tax subsidies and participate in partnerships with tax-funded organizations, publishers, bookstores (and sellers), etc. are private businesses. The flawed (for other reasons) U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee you the right to have your words published in a particular book, article, website, comment section, album—whatever. The government just can’t stop you from doing so, with few exceptions (like copyright laws).

Already this week, people have proved that they still don’t understand that. Now, the conservative outcry around the liberal-leaning list has turned to the abhorrently transphobic book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters and the debacle around its appearance at commercial bookstores. This is because one of the Banned Book Week’s sponsors, the American Booksellers Association, was a part of the drama when they sent hundreds of copies to bookstores as part of a subscription service last year, and later had to send an apology.

This wasn’t the only time the book also drew ire in 2020. Target (one of the more progressive large retailers) removed the book from their website for a whopping 24 hours—before reinstating it during Trans Awareness Week. The internet’s largest retailer (Amazon) refused to remove the book despite protests from employees, but did decline to advertise the book.

This “censored” author earned a priceless promotion of this book from all the media attention regardless of learning, and it shot up Amazon’s top 100 list. Even talking about it here could be considering platforming it, but it’s already been propelled too far into the spotlight not to discuss it. Meanwhile, books that help validate trans existence are often challenged. George by Alex Gino continues to hold its spot as the most challenged book of the year for three years running (2017 – present.) Even in a year where conservative outrage pivoted back to discussions of race, LGBTQ+ stories still are among the most challenging subjects.

Take all this as a reminder to buy books from indie publishers and booksellers who don’t have to worry about a media blitz because, due to size, they don’t have to carry whatever trash political pundits and hate groups/hateful people publish.

(image: American Library Association)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.