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Sex, profanity and violence: Two of the foremost experts on censorship in young adult literature say that no other topics are more likely to get a book banned.
However, in a ranging Q&A session to mark the start of national Banned Books Week, ASU English professors James Blasingame and Sybil Durand say shielding readers does more harm than good.
“If we’re preparing our young people to be adults,” Blasingame said, “then they’re ready to read about adult subjects.”
Banned Books Week promotes the freedom to read and brings books that have been challenged during the year into the spotlight. Since 1982, more than 11,000 books have been challenged by schools, public libraries and bookstores, according to the American Library Association. This annual commemoration aims to explore the effects of censorship while encouraging people to read a banned book and exercise their First Amendment rights.
“We want kids to read about these adult situations before they face them in person,” Blasingame said.
Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
(Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
Question: Can you tell me about the history of book banning?
Blasingame: This goes way back to the first Supreme Court precedent in 1913, in which they were looking at what had been the standard for obscenity. And they decided that people’s judgment of what was obscene would change over time, so they decided that it had to be “contemporary standards.”
Q: Why does book banning persist?
Durand: I imagine that the persistence of book banning and censoring has something to do with adults having a limited understanding of the realities that many young people face in their daily lives. When people challenge books, their argument is often that these books convey ideas that they do not think are appropriate for youth to learn.
However, banning a book from a library or curriculum implies that some ideas and experiences are valuable or worthy of discussion and others are not. It reinforces one particular way of thinking and limits others, which might not accurately reflect the lived realities of youth.
Q: When is it legal to ban a book?
Blasingame: There’s a three-pronged test that’s been put together over time by court precedents, and that includes: One, would it be considered “obscene” — meaning appealing to prurient interests.
The second part is, by contemporary community standards — and that doesn’t mean your local community, that means nationally — would the average citizen find this book to be objectionable?
And the third part of the three-pronged test is, does it have redeeming social, historical, philosophical, psychological value?
Q: Who decides what books get banned and where? Does it vary by state?
Blasingame: In general, a school has a policy that if a book is questioned — books can be challenged by parents or teachers or anyone in the community — that the school will then review the book. And generally it involves a book challenge committee made up of parents and teachers who look at the book and make a decision on it. They know what the parameters are and they’ll make that recommendation to the superintendent, who then will usually follow it.
There are certain things that the Supreme Court has said are not really legal. For example, if a book has been in the curriculum or has been in the library for years, the court has decided that every district can’t have a new school board each year come in and go through all the books and say, “Well, we don’t want this one, and we don’t want that one.” Eventually, you wouldn’t have any books.
Q: What are some of the most commonly censored topics?
Durand: The most commonly censored topics in literature for young adults tend to relate to sexuality and offensive language, with the argument that literature that includes sexually explicit scenes, LGBTQ characters, and language that is deemed offensive is inappropriate for the age of the intended audience. This stance largely underestimates or ignores that many young people identify as LGBTQ, are sexually active, and often curse in their daily lives, and that literature simply reflects these realities.
Blasingame: In general, it’s sex, language and violence. And in that order. You take a book like Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” There’s really nothing violent going on in there. There’s one word in that book that he uses quite often, and that’s why it has been objected to.
I was at a convention of the National Council of Teachers of English in Big Sky, Montana, in 2000. And they were looking at James Welch’s famously banned book across Montana, which is about the Blackfeet Indians in the 1800s.
They had Tom Brokaw at the convention, and they had James Welch, and they had a superintendent from one of the schools that banned it. And the superintendent said, “It has this sex scene in it, so it’s not appropriate for kids. That’s obscene.”
This was also the Montana Indian Education Association convention, and a gentleman behind me, a Blackfoot gentleman, raised his hand, and Tom Brokaw called on him, and he said, “But on page 35, there’s a scene where 150 defenseless Blackfeet women and children are murdered. Don’t you think that’s kind of obscene?” No answer to that.
Q: In a column you co-wrote for The ALAN Review, you argue that banning books does a disservice to youth. How so?
Blasingame: We were making the point that when you ban a book, you’re hurting someone.
LGBTQ literature, it was just completely absent from school libraries and public libraries and school curriculum until fairly recently.
Eleven percent of our population is LGBTQ, and as far as they can tell, they don’t exist because they don’t see themselves in any of the books they read.
They’re being told that their existence doesn’t count.
Same thing with indigenous students. Books that don’t have any indigenous characters in them, what does that say to the kid who’s reading these books?
If he or she looks in the anthology for the year and sees nothing but what we in young adult literature call DOWMs — dead, old, white men — and no Native authors, what do they think? I don’t count? I don’t exist? The only stories that matter are the stories of Northern Europeans?
It’s just wrong. It’s harmful.
Durand: Banning books about controversial issues is akin to keeping silent about the fact that many young people face difficult issues in their daily lives.
It implies that reading and talking about these issues is somehow shameful and denies youth the opportunity to find relief in knowing they are not the only ones facing these issues.
It also prevents young people from learning about these issues and discussing them in a critical and safe way with a trusted adult or teacher.
Q: Do you have any favorite banned books?
Durand: One of the top 10 most banned books in 2015 was “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan, which was inspired by the true story of two young men who attempted to break the world record for the longest kiss and simultaneously took a stand for gay rights.
This book, which was on the long list for the National Book Award for Young People, gives readers the opportunity to learn about social activism in the present and in the past and the courage it takes to demand social equality.
Blasingame: One of mine is Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and the other one is Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Twisted.”
Alexie’s book is largely about a young person trying to live in two cultures. And this is what’s happening with more and more of our young people. They’re having to be the citizens of two, three, several different cultures.
In this book, Sherman, he’s born on the Coeur d’Alene/Spokane Reservation, but he decides to go to school off the reservation where all of the students are white, yet he goes back home during the day. Boy, that’s a tough one. And he navigates that world with a lot of heartache, but it is his choice to do that.
Anderson’s “Twisted” was censored because it has a beer party and it has sex in it.
It’s a book that deals with these things, and we need books for teenagers that deal with these things. We can pretend like they don’t exist. They’re happening to teens every day.
And the more books they read, the more identities and actions they can try on in their minds before doing so in their real lives.
Q: Do you have any advice to students and teachers faced with censorship issues?
Blasingame: If you’re a teacher — and I teach a methods course on this very thing — you need to know the censorship laws, you need to work with the policies that are in your school district.
If a book’s already in the curriculum, you can keep teaching it.
If you want to bring a book in, you have to follow the school board’s policy on bringing in new books.
The federal government has given authority over the schools to the state governments, and the state governments have given it to elected school boards, locally. And it is their responsibility to set the curriculum. And they can decide which books go in. But they can’t just arbitrarily take books out because they don’t like them.
Durand: Students and teachers faced with censorship issues need to be aware that they have the right to read books about socially contested issues.
The 1982 censorship case Board of Education vs. Pico clearly highlights that “school officials may not remove books from school libraries for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in the books, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved.”
Organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship or the Assembly for Literature for Adolescents’ Anti-Censorship Committee provide a number of resources and contacts to support students and teachers in preparing for and responding to book challenges.
Q: Are there any examples like Pico vs. Island Trees here in Arizona?
Blasingame: Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
This is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and there was a group in Gilbert who wanted to ban this book, along with Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Bean Trees.” And bless their hearts, the courageous Gilbert School Board stood up and went and did their research and voted unanimously to keep both in their curriculum.
And these are important books that chronicle the story of America. And this is the knowledge that American young people need to have, so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes we’ve made in the past.
Q: In 2010, a bill banning ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District was passed. That meant books such as “Bless Me, Ultima,” by Rudolfo Anaya and “Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement,” by Arturo Rosales were banned. What are your thoughts about HB 2281 and the dangers of banning ethnic studies, particularly in Arizona?
Blasingame: The kids who took this series of five classes scored higher on the AIMS test and did better on college entrance exams than their peers who did not.
Statistically, significantly better. And this comes back to the question of, when you ban books, who do you harm? Well, if you ban books that are about a certain ethnicity, what are you saying about that ethnicity?
Durand: The result of HB 2281 is that it blocked access for youth to study culturally relevant texts in critical ways. Research shows that culturally relevant materials and pedagogy are essential for students’ academic success.
However, one unexpected outcome of HB 2281 is that it garnered nationwide attention and generated a national discussion about students’ rights to study their own cultures and for students to learn about diverse cultures in schools.
Earlier this month, California passed a bill that supports the creation of an ethnic studies curriculum that reflects the diversity of the student body. This is a step in the right direction, if we are truly committed to supporting young people’s academic success.