Student Thoughts: Book Banning in the Modern World

by Amber Midgett
The creative mind behind Letters From a [Future] Editor and Novel First Sentences

Censorship was never a problem in my house. When I was six, I asked my mom where babies came from; she pulled a book from our shelf and started showing me pictures. I missed the bus. I was reading Nora Roberts novels by the seventh grade. The librarian even had me create Accelerated Reader tests for other students because I read so many titles that weren’t in the school system.

Freshman year of high school, I was thoroughly obsessed with Harry Potter. However, my best friend’s parents sent a note to the school librarian, specifically forbidding her from checking out any Harry Potter book. Lynn’s father was a pastor for a local church, and there was a congregation-wide effort to refuse their children any books “glorifying witchcraft.”
Therefore, every morning, I brought my copy of Harry Potter to school, and Lynn would read as much as possible throughout the day before returning the book to me. When Half-Blood Prince was released, she even risked getting caught, sneaking the book home in her backpack and reading it through the night. By the release of Deathly Hallows, Lynn was a full-fledged Potterhead, and proud. She informed her parents that she was going to the midnight release of the novel, and they had a long conversation about the merits and faults of the series as a whole, specifically the implications of magic.

That is what literature is supposed to do – educate. Open up discussions and learning opportunities. Instead, people are turning important lessons into something to be feared and avoided, ideas that are corrupting our youth and giving them too much knowledge of the world.

Photo taken at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA.

Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA. Photo credit: Amber Midgett.

Here are just a select few cases of challenges and bans in recent history:

  • An Arizona school district confiscated titles from such authors as Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz, just because they are Mexican-American.
  • Book challengers are not fans of Maurice Sendak’s work, especially In the Night Kitchen. It was banned on the grounds of being inappropriate sexually – the nudity, free-flowing milky fluids, and “phallic” milk bottle were seen as symbols to imply masturbation or wet dreams.
  • Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was banned in 1983 simply for being “a real downer” (what with the Holocaust and all). In 2010, it was removed from the curriculum for mentioning vaginas.
  • There are numerous books challenged and banned for the transgression of addressing homosexuality. These include And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, King and King by Linda de Haan, Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which depicts the mental and emotional destruction of a young girl after she is raped at a party, was challenged in 2010 for the “glorification of premarital sex.”
  • Dictionaries were removed from classrooms in California for being “sexually graphic” and “not age appropriate” because they define sexual terms.
  • A school district in North Carolina banned Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison because they determined it “had no literary value.” This occurred last week. 
Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA. Photo credit: Amber Midgett.

Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA. Photo credit: Amber Midgett.

Looking at all of the books that have been banned in recent years, and learning the reasons that people chose to challenge those titles, is more than just disheartening – it is downright devastating. When I think about some of the amazing books that have been taken away from students, I remember my own experience reading so many of them. I wonder how I would be different if I hadn’t had the opportunity to study the classics, or hadn’t been encouraged to pick up problematic titles that addressed important situations I could someday face. There are so many conversations with my parents I might have missed without a book opening the door to it. I wouldn’t have as much knowledge as one should about history, society, overcoming obstacles, realistic struggles, and many other critical themes. I would have missed entirely the lyrical prose of Maya Angelou, the haunting true story of Anne Frank, the beautiful artwork of Maurice Sendak.

Not only are adults ripping good literature from the hands of their own children, they’re ripping it from the hands of all the other children, too.

“Censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” ~Laurie Halse Anderson

EDIT: As of 9/26, North Carolina reversed the ban on The Invisible Man due to the amount of backlash. 

The Future of the Bookstore

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When Borders closed in Bryn Mawr in September 2011, it was a sad day for many in this area, let alone the 30 employees (many of whom were students in either the graduate publishing or creative writing programs at Rosemont). Eighteen months later 3 bookstores remain: Children’s Book World in Haverford, Title Page (used books) in Bryn Mawr, and Barnes & Noble in Devon. This is not a plight relegated to the Main Line; this has happened all over the country. We read in the news, practically on a daily basis, that another independent bookstore has succumbed .

Yet, I am not ready to give up hope. Too many people still love the feel of a book — yes, you know what I’m talking about, the fabric covered cardboard protecting 250 to 300 pages of paper with vivid words that play with our imaginations. I do, however, believe the model must change. Children’s Book World in Haverford, by name, is a long-loved children’s bookstore, but wait…Hannah Schwartz and her staff recognized the needs of the community, and the front corner of their shop now features books for an older set. But even this may not be enough.

So I asked the program Facebook fans “Barnes and Noble to close 1/3 of stores over the next 10 years. What will this mean for some areas – no bookstores…Hmm. So how can we change the model to make them more financial viable? Thoughts?”

Here are some of the rather interesting responses (names have been withheld): “…combine the concept of libraries with bookstores. Beyond the basic idea of buying print books, it seems like the main reason people love bookstores is the atmosphere. If we keep the brick and mortar store with shelves to browse and cushy seating (and of course coffee shops), but combine it with ability to loan books (and e-books) perhaps it would work. That, or get federal funding like libraries!” Another responder said, “The solution in some areas is to convert local bookstores into non profits & make them community centers.” Well, bookstores are, I would argue, community centers, but without funding, they can’t survive as community centers. Thinking from a purely financial viewpoint, this comment was posted, “The inevitable problem of the publishing industry is that booksellers don’t get enough profit from the sale of a book. Since discounts are set, retailers – big box or indie – cannot mark-up the price of a book like in traditional retail. If new books were sold like clothes, authors & stores would have a chance. Books & music need to change their whole business structure or authors & musicians will have to always keep a day job.” Finally, the last comment, “Publisher’s rent space in the store and create their publishing boutique under the umbrella of B&N (like the harlequin display). B&N then partners with amazon to fulfill [the order]. Give [customers] a scanner while in B&N and [then] fulfill through Amazon!”

While none of the models mentioned above will work solely on their own, I assure you there is a model. As the Director of the Graduate Publishing Program and a reader, this is a question I will continue to ponder, a question my students will continue to ponder, and maybe we can create the successful model!

Anne Converse Willkomm, MFA