Why we need Banned Books Week more than ever

What do popstar Ariana Grande, filmmaker Guillermo del Torro and 90s rock sensation Garbage have in common? They’ve all joined the fight against book bans in the USA, just ahead of Banned Books Week.

Alongside more predictable figures like Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay and Judy Blume, they are some of more than 170 artists who signed an open letter condemning book bans and calling on Hollywood to use its influence.

“We refuse to remain silent as one creative field is subjected to oppressive bans,” the artists wrote. “As artists, we must band together, because a threat to one form of art is a threat to us all.”

They make it clear that the censorship will not end with book bans. Right now, schools and libraries are facing challenges over a particular selection of books with specific themes, which can lead to local bans. How long before Hollywood faces the wrath of those who want to shield their children from what they deem inappropriate content? How long before certain stories go untold?

PEN America recently released its latest book ban report, which makes for sobering reading. In just one year, bans have increased by a third, with a total of 3,362 bans in the 2022-23 school year. The sharp rise in book bans is largely targeted at books with LGBTQ+ content, characters or authors; books about race or racism; and books about physical abuse or with themes of grief or death. The problem is most rampant in school districts in Florida, where 40% of the bans originate, totalling 1,406 cases.

A huge percentage of the school districts where bans are taking place have a neighbour in common: a chapter of one of the advocacy groups pushing for bans, one of the most prolific of which is the conservative group Moms for Liberty. One member even set up a repository of “objectionable content” called Book Looks, according to a report by Book Riot — although the website itself claims to not be affiliated with the group.

One book under the spotlight in Book Looks is teen sex education book This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, which made the list of the most banned books last year, compiled by the American Library Association. The website distils the book down into a few sections of text in a “slick sheet” and comes with a rating of four (out of five), which is described as not being suitable for under 18s and containing “obscene references to sexual activity” or “explicit sexual nudity.” The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood receives the same score, as do The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Forever by Judy Blume.

I spoke to Juno Dawson for the most recent issue of Index on Censorship, of which I am the assistant editor, which landed with readers in time for Banned Books Week 2023 (1-7 October). On her most recent book tour in the US, which was for her children’s picture book You Need to Chill, she had to take a bodyguard for her own safety, due to her status as a trans woman who writes about LGBTQ+ issues. After the Hilton school district in New York State received a bomb threat in March over a selection of books including This Book is Gay, Dawson’s picture book tour did not take in schools or libraries.

“One of the key issues is people aren’t actually reading the book,” she said. “And so what happens is actually they are protesting books which have appeared on other lists. Vexatious people and groups who are trying to ban books are not going to books and reading books. They are just scouring the internet for books that they should be irate about.”

A small anti-censorship community called Save Samuels publishes book challenges sent to Samuels Public Library, saying: “We won’t allow our library to be used as a political wedge to win over religious voters at the expense of our LGBTQ+ community.”

One of the challenges it has posted is to Dawson’s picture book You Need to Chill, which reads “it is specifically crafted to normalise gender dysphoria and transitioning of children” and claims that the full text has been posted on a website (which it has, regardless of copyright law) with the aim of warning other parents.

The book challenger also demands that the book be destroyed, rather than rehomed. In another challenge directed at the picture book Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middleby Nina LaCour, the challenger is asked whether they have read the book, to which they respond: “I have not.”

Dawson discussed the damage done when particular books are targeted.

“Let’s be quite clear, when people challenge a book about race, or a book about being LGBTQ, really what they’re trying to ban is being queer, or they’re trying to restrict the lives of young Black people,” she said.

The special report in our latest issue of Index explores how religion is being weaponised by the right. This Book is Gay has faced pressure from faith groups, and Dawson was quick to point out that it’s not just one group.

Another author who knows plenty about coming under fire from the religious right is Margaret Atwood, who also spoke to Index. In light of the recent uptick in book bans, she has no doubt that people are using religion in a more emboldened way, explaining that it is hard to argue with God.

“If you can accuse your enemies of heresy and blasphemy it’s somehow more potent than accusing them of not agreeing with you politically,” she said. “You’re not just disagreeing with Mr Sunak, you’re disagreeing with God.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, arguably Atwood’s most famous book, is not anti-religion but rather explores how religion is abused. She sees the latest developments in the US as being more about power than religion. For Atwood, shutting down speech on both the left and right leads to trouble.

“People who are actually interested in free speech have to realise that they cannot just defend the speech which they approve of,” she said. “Free speech does mean free speech. There are always limits to it so you can’t say ‘sign up here to become a child molester’, but you have to defend the principle and a lot of people find it difficult to defend the right of their ideological enemies to express those opinions.”

While PEN’s report outlines worrying ways in which book banners are digging in their heels, it also offers hope. Students are pushing back. Some are walking out in protest, as in the case of Hempfield school district in Pennsylvania, and others have delivered speeches encouraging people to read banned books, such as the valedictorian in Sioux City, Iowa, who then handed a copy of This Book is Gay to the school’s superintendent.

On top of the Hollywood letter in support of the freedom to read, September offered up one more positive move — California’s law banning book bans. Governor Gavin Newson signed the bill into law, which will stop schools from banning books on the basis that they contain “inclusive and diverse perspectives”. The law comes into effect immediately.

It is clear that actions like this are needed now more than ever, and for public figures, legislators and activists to continue fighting back against censorship. A collective action on 7 October, Let Freedom Read Day, where everyone is invited to take one action against book censorship, is a good start. Left unchecked, skyrocketing book bans could soar even higher.

A version of this article was originally published in Byline Times

Words under fire: When libraries become targets

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117556″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Almost three decades ago, some three million books and countless artefacts went up in flames when Sarajevo’s National and University Library – inside the Vijecnica (city hall) – was burned to the ground. The destruction of the Vijecnica at the beginning of the war was a symbol for one of the aggressor’s main objectives – silencing the soul of the city and crushing the cultural identity of an entire society.”

So said Dunja Mijatović, the current Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, who was born in Sarajevo when it was part of Yugoslavia.

Just weeks before the anniversary of the burning of the library on 25 August 1992, Mijatović spoke to Index about its symbolism and what its destruction was meant to achieve.

She quoted Heinrich Heine’s play, Almansor: “Where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn people.”
Libraries and archives have been targets for centuries, and the reason is always the same: it’s about taking away knowledge and stifling free thinking.

Libraries are, and have always been, symbols of freedom – the freedom to think and learn and find documents and books to debate and discuss.

Throughout history, when authoritarians take power and seek to control thought and behaviour, they either lock up libraries or destroy the manuscripts and books inside them.

The Serbian forces who burned the Sarajevo library were seeking to obliterate evidence of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s existence as a successful multicultural and multi-ethnic state. The documents they burned told a different history from the one that the army leaders wanted to portray.

Omar Mohammed, who reported as Mosul Eye on the Isis occupation of his city in Iraq, risked his life to blog anonymously about the occupiers’ wish to destroy books as well as to execute people as they sought to repress the population.

Mohammed told Index that it was not just the university library that was destroyed in Mosul, but it was the one that was reported on the most.

Many other libraries, even private collections, were wiped out. “The only possible reason is because knowledge is power,” he said. “Once you prevent people from accessing knowledge then you will have full control over them.”

Like many other scholars who have delved into the history of libraries, Mohammed understands that it is not about the buildings themselves.

“They don’t want people to have this access because they know if people write the history, it will be completely different from the one they wanted it to be,” he said.

Targeting libraries sends out a powerful message to scholars, historians and scientists, he added.

“When they see that such people are able to totally target the libraries, that they are literally able to destroy everything, it’s a manifestation of brutality.”

Today, Richard Ovenden, the most senior librarian at the Bodleian libraries at the University of Oxford, is worried about libraries in Turkey being closed under pressure from the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

According to some sources, at least 188 libraries were closed there between 2002 and 2020.

Ovenden’s book, Burning the Books, looks at the history of the intentional destruction of knowledge. He was recently contacted by a Turkish student, who said: “I’ve just read your book and I want you to know how bad it is in Turkey, because libraries are being destroyed. And all the things that you write about are true in Turkey today.”

Ovenden said: “There is an absolutely authoritarian control over knowledge. Attacks on knowledge are being exercised by the authoritarian leader of Turkey right now. It is the ability for the population to generate their own ideas and to come up with their own thoughts that some governments, some authoritarian powers, some dictators and rulers do not like.”

When dictatorships seek to establish that certain minorities don’t exist, or haven’t lived somewhere, getting rid of the documentary evidence is very convenient.

Archives that establish the existence of Uighurs in China and Muslims in parts of India also look like targets.
Ovenden feels that what is fantastically important about libraries is that they “preserve the past thoughts and ideas of human beings so they’re parts of that evidence base”.

He added: “They’re also disseminating institutions [where] you can borrow the books, you can come and take those ideas away and write other books about them, or pamphlets, or newspaper articles, or whatever it is.”
Governments around the world are failing to protect libraries as a resource, sometimes by withdrawing or drastically reducing funding.

In the UK, almost 800 libraries closed between 2010 and 2019, and a major campaign kicked off in Australia this year to save the national archives.

Michelle Arrow, professor of history at Macquarie University in Sydney, argued in April that if funding cuts were not reversed, irreplaceable audio-visual collections would fall apart. After a public campaign, the national government has delivered some extra funding, but this has not solved all the archives’ problems.

She told Index that with a reduction in staff of almost 25% since 2013, more staff would be needed to deal with the large backlog of requests to view archived material.

She said the archives contained “unique records, and they touch almost every Australian: it is a democratic archive, a collection of ordinary people’s records, rather than famous or renowned Australians”.

While some countries are seeing numerous library closures due to financial or other threats, there are new defenders coming to light. In the coastal city of Santa Cruz in California, there’s a massive investment in upgrades to current libraries, and new ones are opening over the next two years.

Santa Cruz mayor Donna Meyers told Index: “In California, we just tend to believe in public institutions. We believe that public education, public libraries, all of that, lead to a better community, lead to a more informed society.”

Santa Cruz residents passed a special tax – by 78% of the vote – to pay for investment in the libraries which, Meyers says, is a sign of how committed the community is to libraries being around for future generations.
Back in Sarajevo, Mijatović can see the new library that rose from the ashes of the Vijecnica from her terrace.
She said: “One hopes that the soul and the people of Sarajevo will recover and that new generations will hopefully enjoy this magnificent symbol of Sarajevo and, more importantly, live in peace.”

Library destruction in recent history

1914: German troops destroy the library of the Catholic University of Louvain

1939: The Great Talmudic Library in Lublin is destroyed by the Nazis

1966-76: Chairman Mao destroys libraries across China as part of the Cultural Revolution

1976-79: The Khmer Rouge deliberately destroy libraries across Cambodia, including the Phnom Penh national library

2013: Islamic troops set fire to the library in Timbuktu, Mali


What you missed from Banned Books Week 2020

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115172″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Books have long been objects of contention, criticised for spreading ideas which go against the status quo. They are removed from libraries and bookshops, burned, banned and vandalised while writers are attacked, threatened, imprisoned. These actions are nothing new, yet the importance of preserving our freedom to read is more important now than ever. 

Freedom to read is at the centre of Banned Books Week, an initiative which has sought to challenge censorship on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing together literary communities – librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

The initiative was launched in the USA in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools. Since then, it has sought to highlight the value of free and open access to information. Each year sees an exciting strand of events, readings list, games and activities designed to get people thinking about books that have been banned throughout history, and are still causing offense today. 

As the 2020 Banned Books Week comes to a close, we have a chance to reflect on the impact the initiative has had over the past 38 years, and consider the work we still need to do to ensure everyone is free to read. 

Censoring literature is nothing new. It has a long and dark history and has been exercised by governments, political parties and religious groups for centuries. Book burning, which has been recorded as early as the 7th century BCE, and proliferated under the Nazi party in Germany in 1933, is emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence some aspect of prevailing culture. 

Today’s methods of censorship remain prevalent yet differ in style. Political leaders use legal methods to silence or prohibit writing which paints themselves and their parties in an unpleasant light – techniques not so different to the vexatious lawsuits used to silence journalists. Academic textbooks are rewritten to paint recent historical events in a very different light, and a favourite illustrated bear has long been banned to protect the ego of other fragile leaders. 

As well as these more blatant signs of government censorship, literature is still challenged today. Some of the most canonical works of the 20th century have famously been challenged – including The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which this year sees the 60th anniversary of its uncensored publication in the UK. But it is children’s books that cause a particular stir, such as And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell which tells the true story of two male penguins who create a family together and was subsequently banned in US schools and libraries for depicting same-sex marriage and adoption. 

While this year’s Banned Books Week took a different shape from previous years, we had the pleasure of hearing a number of writers speak about their experiences of being silenced, censored or simply refused a platform. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resultant global Black Lives Matter protests, it has been clearer than ever before that the voices of some are prioritised to the exclusion of others. 

In an online session on 29 September, Urvashi Butalia spoke to poet Rachel Long, and authors Elif Shafak and Jacqueline Woodson about what ‘freedom’ means in the culture of traditional publishing, and how writers today can change the future of literature. During the event, Shafak defended freedom of speech and spoke about her experience of seeing her works of fiction brought into the courtroom – “it was very surreal to me. Art needs freedom, even though it may be harmful in the eyes of authorities.” 

Shafak’s comments harked back to those made by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison during the launch of the Free Speech Leadership Council, an advocacy arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship. At the event, Morrison spoke of her novel Song of Solomon being banned at a prison after the warden expressed fear that it might stir the incarcerated to riot. An acoustical lapse led Morrison to speculate as to whether the real fear was of the inmates incitement to “riot” or “write” – asking, which would ultimately be the most dangerous?

While authorities and governments fear literary works that are seen to challenge them, we are reminded this Banned Books Week of the importance of free artistic expression and of literature’s power to challenge even the most powerful, oppressive forces. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#BannedBooksWeek2016: Banned books webinar


What’s it like to be an author of a banned or challenged book? How can librarians support authors who find themselves in this situation? To mark Banned Books Week, Vicky Baker, deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine, will chair an online discussion with three authors on 29 September, followed by a Q&A.

It is free to join, although attendees must register in advance.

The contributors are:

  • Christine Baldacchino, author of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a children’s book about a boy who likes to wear a dress, which “highly concerned” some parents when it was read in US schools.
  • Wendy Doniger, a professor of religious history at the University of Chicago and author of numerous academic works. Her 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History was recalled, and destroyed, by the publisher Penguin India in 2014, after a lawsuit was filed, claiming the work denigrated Hinduism
  • Jessica Herthel, a graduate of Harvard Law School, who co-wrote the children’s picture book I Am Jazz, with Jazz Jennings, a transgender activist and YouTube/television star. In 2015, an elementary school in Wisconsin cancelled a reading of the book after a group threatened to sue.

The webinar has been arranged by Sage Publications, in conjunction with the American Library Association.

When: Thursday 29 September, 4pm GMT / 11 EST
Where: Online
Tickets: Free, registration required.