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Banned Books Week: Celebrate Your Freedom to Read!

banned book picture of censored words "Discover What You're Missing"It is that time of year again. The leaves are crisping on the trees. The wind is making reading inside all the more appealing. And libraries and schools across the nation are celebrating Banned Books Week. That last bit tends to throw people. I love Banned Books Week and so when I’m running around mindlessly chirping ‘Happy Banned Books Week’, I often get those blank stares that tell me I’m being weirder than usual.

I get a lot of curious questions too.

“Why would you celebrate banning books?” Well, no. That’s not it. We’re celebrating the books that have been banned, the authors that have the courage to tell hard stories, and the communities that fought to keep a book on a shelf.

“We live in America. No one bans books.” Uh, that’s not true either. Banned Books Week is amazing, in part, because it is about awareness. There’s nothing as insidious as banning books quietly. If a book just disappears off a library shelf and no one cares to cry ‘foul’, all we have is silence.

“They banned Harry Potter? Charlotte’s Web? The Hunger Games? Little Red Riding Hood? To Kill a Mockingbird? WHY?!” Yes. They’ve banned and challenged the viability of lots and lots of books. The reasons vary, of course, but according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, over this recent past decade, 5,099 challenges were reported. Want that broken down? Here:

1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”

Sometimes challenges can be silly. Like in 2012 when Bill Bigelow’s Rethinking Columbus: the Next 500 Years was banned from Tucson, Ariz. Unified School District because it taught ethnic heritage. (Yeah, think about that…) Or, when parents in Liberty, S.C. (also 2012) opposed their middle school students reading assignment from No-Fear Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because *whisper* they have sex. Or, when Nickel and Dimed was challenged, but retained on the Easton, Pa. Area High School’s Advanced Placement English reading list for being “faddish,” of “no moral value,” and even “obscene.”

Books, you see, are like people. They come in a lot of shapes, sizes, and colors. Books have different stories and some of their stories aren’t nice and some of their stories aren’t shaped for you. This is the reason we celebrate Banned Books Week and our freedom to read. Maybe the book that doesn’t fit you (your shape, size, color or tastes) is just perfect for someone else. And, we want you and everyone else to find that one book that just sings to them…the one book you can’t put down…that defines you.

This isn’t really a secret but I *like* banned books. They’re banned because someone felt really powerfully about them and I find I often feel really powerfully about them too. Let me tell you a tale about censorship and right-reading. You see, there’s a current censorship scandal surrounding Rainbow Rowell’s first YA novel Eleanor & Park. When I say current, I mean RIGHT NOW. This month. If you haven’t heard, I’d encourage you to check out the very informative and heart-wrenching response the author had to a) being invited to a school to talk about her book, b) being dis-invited to the school, c) having her books challenged in the schools and public libraries in this Minnesotan town. Why? Well, the group taking action against this book calls it “dangerously obscene”.

Remember books come in different shapes so I’m sure Eleanor & Park isn’t a book for EVERYONE but it is a book that’s been very, very well reviewed. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, wrote up a lovely review about it in the New York Times. He wrote, “‘Eleanor & Park’ reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” It isn’t doing too shabby on its  GoodReads reviews either. As with many well-reviewed books, Eleanor & Park has been hovering on my very long ‘To Read’ list so I’m a touch thankful that someone in Minnesota decided to be so angry about it. There anger made me curious and Eleanor & Park moved up my ‘To Read” list at a fast past ’cause I just had to go see what it was all about.

I don’t feel it is dangerously obscene. Or even slightly obscene. I mean, there’s cursing. Probably a lot of it. But that isn’t the point of the story. That’s an edge to it, a darkness that is part of the characters’ lives. But, gah! I thought that Eleanor & Park was just dangerously sweet. Toxically beautiful. Horrifyingly wonderful. I couldn’t put it down.

And, now, I feel slightly guilty that I’m almost glad that someone said it was “dangerously obscene”.  Eleanor & Park was a book that fit me. I tore through it and am lost and reeling now that it is over and I’ve nothing more of it to read. So, the angry mob of parents in Minnesota, unwittingly, set me up with a viciously marvelous book. Still, I’m saddened that there are teens in some town in Minnesota that might never have a chance to feel that elation of reading the right book. And, so, for this Banned Books Week, I encourage you to remember the different shapes and sizes and stories in books. If you come across one that doesn’t appeal to you, remember you can catch and release. Set down that book and let it sit on the shelf for the right set of hands, and eyes, and heart.

Celebrate your Freedom to Read this week by finding that book that’s yours or re-reading the book you once fell in love with.

Oh! And, if you like to talk about your one true book love, I’d be happy to listen to your tale. ;)

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