Live Free and Read: Banned Books Week With Shannon Barnsley of Bound and Gagged Books
Every year a whole gaggle of organizations, including American Booksellers for Free Expression, the American Library Association, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the National Coalition against Censorship (among many others) sponsor an entire week dedicated to the freedom to read. September 27th-October 3rd is Banned Books Week, and this years theme is Young Adult lit, which we couldn’t be more pleased about here at Fab Feminist. (Check out our September newsletter, Banned Books and Censorship!) Young Adult literature is challenged more than any other category in the United States. More conservative parents, school boards and educators are likely to give into their anxieties over childhood exposure to content which might be deemed controversial, questionable or amoral, depending on your political leanings. And, it seems public favor of book banning and censoring is on the rise in the US (x).
Here are some brief factoids to catch you up to speed with book banning:
“Books by and about people of color… are challenged and banned more than any other genre” (x)
“For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940. Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, which purpose was in part to monitor and censor distribution of media and texts, declared the book nonmailable.” (x)
“TUSD removed hundreds of works that had been part of its curriculum. Books were boxed, sometimes in front of astonished students, classes were suspended and classrooms stripped of materials. Among the banned books were Rethinking Columbus: the Next 500 Yearsby Bill Bigelow, Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado, Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” (x)
“In 2013, the top banned book in America was the kid’s story Captain Underpants.It was most frequently challenged for potty language and toilet humor.” (x)
I knew months ago there was one person I absolutely had to talk to regarding Banned Books Week – and that person is Shannon Barnsley, the author behind Bound And Gagged Books.
Callie What exactly is book banning?
Shannon A banned book is a book which has been banned by a government, school, library, religious institution, or other organization. This can range from a middle school library removing them from their collection to an entire nation outlawing them and confiscating and/or burning them if found. Books that have been censored in whole or in part, are allowed in a school but have been removed from classrooms or a curriculum due to controversy, or remain in a school or library but are restricted to certain grades or with parental permission only are sometimes lumped in with this term. Challenged books are also frequently mixed up with banned books. A challenged book is a book that someone has challenged by petitioning for its removal, usually from a school or library. Book banning has existed for millennia (pretty much since there have been books) and has been expressed in many forms. It can also range in severity from annoying to downright deadly. While the emphasis on books banned and challenged in US schools is obviously the most relevant kind of book banning to many and is a complex issue with many cultural and political ramifications, it has given some the impression that book bans are fairly harmless. While the idea of Inquisition or Soviet style arrest, violence, or death for having prohibited books may seem antiquated, one need only look to ISIS and their ilk to see that it is far from over.
C What criteria do books often have to meet in order to be banned?
S This largely depends on why they are banned. Historically, religious and political content is frequently the biggest target. In US schools, this is still the case. Religious content or even books that are perceived to have religious, paranormal/supernatural, or anti-religious content are still frequent ban and challenge fodder. This could mean anything from the overt Christian proselytizing of Narnia to a children’s book containing ghost stories or magic to horror comics with werewolves or vampires. Bridge to Terabithia has ignited parental fury for allegedly teaching children witchcraft (No witchcraft is mentioned in the book. It is not a fantasy novel.) and because a character mentions not believing in God and, thus, is not considered “a good role model”. Books with witches of any definition, from Strega Nona to Hermione to Morgan Le Fey, could pretty much slap a banned sticker on at publication, as they are the lightning rods of cultural anxieties and misunderstanding (which is rooted in a much longer history than I can discuss here, but will be hopefully be covering in greater depth on my blog come October). Religious objections could mean a book is too religious or not religious enough, such as A Wrinkle in Time, which has been challenged and/or banned both for being too Christian and anti-Christian.
Political messages or perceived political messages are also frequent reasons for banning or challenging a book. This can also range from books banned in countries for being a perceived threat to the current status quo/regime/dominant culture/dominant religion/etc to a local law in Tucson that banned pretty much any book with a non-white character in an attempt to stay “neutral” in the culture wars.
Sexual content is another big one, particularly around books with LGBTQ themes that deal with issues of abuse or relationship violence, or books that offer information about puberty and sexual development (see just about any book by Judy Blume). The idea that teenagers have sex, consensually or otherwise, is one of the most terrifying things to many people, including a New Hampshire man who was arrested for disorderly conduct when expressing his distaste over his daughter having to read a Jodi Picoult novel.
Other reasons books have been banned or challenged include but are not limited to violent content, dark themes, poverty, abuse, upsetting content, offensive language, homosexual themes, being perceived as “anti-ethnic”, a perceived lack of educational or literary merit, perceived anti-family content, or being unsuitable for intended (or perceived to be intended) age group. For more on this, I direct you to the American Library Association.
C Do you think it’s ever acceptable to ban a book?
S Oh, gods. This is a hard one. There’s a lot of grey area in what constitutes a ban as libraries and schools often cause controversy by removing a book already on their shelves or in their curriculum, but no one notices them not using or stocking a book in the first place. Similarly, books not getting published for many of these same reasons is a less cut and dry issue. Books that portray rape, violence, racism, pedophilia, etc in a positive light are often dragged up as an example that even the staunchest anti-censorship activists have a limit.
In schools, particularly public schools, it’s a matter of finding the balance between not censoring content and exposing children to things in an age-appropriate way, which is a very difficult thing to navigate when every parent feels differently about what is or isn’t appropriate. Whether in the classroom or in the real world, even problematic or highly controversial books, be it Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey or Mein Keimpf and Malleus Maleficarum, can offer a great deal of insight into a historical period, political or religious movement, culture or cultural norm/taboo/anxiety, or historical person when viewed objectively and with the relevant context, just as you can’t teach religious texts as religion in public schools, but you can teach them in a mythology or comparative religion class.
The best ways to try and navigate this struggle in US schools is for parents and teachers to communicate and try and be on the same page, which is obviously never going to work perfectly. Parents knowing what their children are reading, talking to their children about it, and doing the research to know what content a book may have rather than assuming it fits their definition of child or family friendly all can help achieve this balance as much as possible, as many people who ban or challenge books haven’t read them and sometimes ban a book for a message that may be the exact opposite of what the book is trying to say. Knowing your kids and what they can or can’t handle, your priorities and values, and understanding that other children they go to school with may be different or come from different backgrounds can also help avoid overreactions and outrage.
Thus, I don’t think we should be taking issue with individual books but with the ways in which the books are discussed or included. Though, obviously, if my future spawn came home from elementary school with a copy of Slave Girl of Gor, I’d definitely have a few questions.
C Some people might argue that we live in an increasingly liberal society. Why is Banned Books week still important?
S According to the American Library Association, book challenges are actually on the rise. While some may, perhaps correctly, perceive our society progressing or liberalizing, it is not a universal and even progression. It may happen in fits and starts, happen in certain areas while others fall behind, or stir up counter-culture clashes and backlash in the process. The fact that (teen) sex, LGBTQ themes or content, political content, racial and ethnic portrayals or perceptions, real world issues (sexual assault and abuse, relationship violence, poverty, discrimination, etc), and anything remotely dealing with or not dealing with religion are the reasons so many books are banned shows that book bans and challenges, however effective or ineffective, are an expression of larger cultural anxieties and polarizing issues beyond books.
On the global level, persecution, control of information, and targeted cultural destruction and erasure are not abstract concepts. They are happening every day, whether in the form of smashed statues, bombed temples, tampered archaeological sites, biased or rose-tinted history textbooks, or prohibited books/music/etc. If we can’t address that in the comfort of our reading chairs or library nooks, how the hell are we supposed to deal with it in the real world in any kind of meaningful or productive way?
C What inspired you to start Bound and Gagged?
S While I was the kind of kid who never got in trouble, I have always taken issue with arbitrary or unfair rules, suppressing information, pussyfooting around issues, and treating kids or people in general like they can’t be trusted to think for themselves. If someone said a book had been banned somewhere, I immediately wanted to read it. If that one pushy mom in the neighborhood thought I wasn’t old enough to use the oven unsupervised, I suddenly wanted to cook a full-course meal. If I was told certain hot button issues were off-limits for a research paper, I was sure to tackle them in one at my earliest opportunity.
Erasing experiences, opinions, or minority traditions/beliefs/cultures/perspectives is also an issue I have tried to engage with in one way or another since childhood. Thus, when advised to write a blog to show a readership and thus hopefully increase the likelihood of getting published, I immediately thought of doing something about banned books. I toyed with the idea off and on for a while and talked several times with a friend about doing it together but never quite got around to actually doing it. When Ray Bradbury, author of the often-misunderstood Fahrenheit 451 among innumerable other things, died on my birthday, I decided to pull the trigger. While really more about anti-intellectualism than book banning, Fahrenheit 451 struck a chord with me in high school and the image of the woman burning herself alive rather than have her books confiscated has haunted me since. It was time to start articulating my thoughts on the things that mattered to me and books and intellectual freedom definitely mattered.
C Do you see a difference between the banning of books by a school district, for instance, and the banning of books by a government?
S Often the stakes are bigger, in that school district bans usually involve less arrest, murder, and political persecution. It’s frequently argued that school bans don’t matter because you can just go buy the book (though that ignores issues of access and privilege), which you can’t do if they are turned away from your country’s borders, at least without a robust black market. In the end, though, it’s the same concept: 1) people thinking they know better and that other people cannot be trusted to make their own decisions or come to their own conclusions, or, 2) a fear of knowledge, opinions, or ideas or those ideas falling into the wrong hands. Both use the guise of benevolent concern or righteous moralizing and outrage.
C Did you read banned books as a child and young adult? Was it something you were aware of – did you have that conversation with your parents, or were they just books that you read?
S I loved Harry Potter as a kid, so I was aware of the moral panic and pearl-clutching around certain books pretty quickly. My parents exposed me to a lot of different ideas growing up that other kids in my neighborhood didn’t necessarily get and emphasized thinking for yourself and that knowledge is power. My mom also sought out diverse books to counterbalance the fact that we were growing up in an extremely ethnically and religiously homogenous area. Both she and my dad would read things to my brother and I and discuss what we read. We had a yearly tradition of reading a book together and then seeing the movie when it came out and then discussing what we liked or didn’t like about each or what we thought of the book’s message and themes.
When I was homeschooled for a year in the greater DC area (military brat), most of my curriculum was reading, going to museums, and writing about both. This allowed me to engage with what I had read, learned, or experienced in a way that normal school assignments didn’t. I read a lot of banned books in and out of school (classics and banned books tend to overlap) without realizing and my love of fantasy led me to read a lot of books with the kind of supernatural elements that get people hot and bothered. Being pagan in a then almost entirely Christian area probably didn’t help matters as I took those particular moral panics personally.
As I said earlier, I resented censorship before I had the words to express that sentiment. I also read books simply because someone somewhere had told someone they shouldn’t. The fact that I had a fairly robust education on witch trials, forced conversion and conquest, religious persecution and censorship, and the Medieval Church (along with units on Native American genocide, Nazi Germany, and totalitarianism/fascism in general in school) also made me aware of how much you could limit what people are allowed to know. The erasure of information and often ultimately people is something that has fascinated and terrified me my entire life and it oozes into just about everything I write, what I studied, and how I view the things I read.
Though, when I was reading Julie of the Wolves, Shakespeare, fairy tales, Goosebumps, Scary Stories, Strega Nona, or Clifford the Big Red Dog as a kid, it never occurred to me that anyone could take issue with them.
C What are your top 10 recommended Young Adult banned books?
S Oh, man. That is a hard one and largely depends on what that kid needs to hear. Also, I’m not sure if graphic novels are considered YA or not and, if so, does anyone consider Saga YA? I’m a bit worried if they do. What about Carrie? It’s about teenagers, but I’ve never thought of Stephen King books as teen lit.
If it counts, Persepolis is definitely at the top of the list. It’s not only an arresting read, but it’s an extremely important and topical one that I rank up there with Zlata’s Diary and Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl. After Persepolis, it would probably be something by Judy Blume (Tiger Eyes or Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret), Sabriel, The Golden Compass, Harry Potter, The Giver, Bridge to Terabithia, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Julie of the Wolves, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Tomorrow I’m going to read that and be outraged that I left off something. See. I already forget A Wrinkle in Time. Gah. Okay, Meg, Katniss, and Sabriel can fight for the spot. Or they can team up and rid the land of oppression, the rising dead, and incompetent science teachers.
C Why do you think there’s such fervor around banning books, but not tv, movies or video games?
S Oh, there is. There was a kerfuffle over Power Rangers when I was little. Now there is the exact same argument about violent content regarding The Avengers or Wonder Woman. Superheroes have been banned from playgrounds and cafeterias. Batman was blamed for the mass shooting in Colorado and costumes were banned from theatres. In the wake of Columbine, what was and wasn’t allowed in children’s television programming changed dramatically. Violent or “inappropriate” television shows such as South Park have been blamed for all manner of things, including Columbine. The Matrix took similar flak back in its heyday.
Video games have caused moral outrage and parental handwringing my entire life and more than a few politicians have taken up the issue through the years. Republican TV personality Elisabeth Hasselback once said that we should have a means of keeping tabs on people who buy video games, with the idea being that gamers are responsible for mass shootings. Television, movies, and video games are different than books, though, in that they have imposed or self-imposed ratings and standards. However, many have taken issue with the arbitrary or problematic nature of how these standards or ratings are applied (i.e. rape is rated R, but a woman orgasming is NC-17) and these ratings and regulations often exist out of previous censorship and legislation designed to keep content “decent” or out of the hands of certain people, much like the infamous Comics Code Authority (I wrote a guest post on this for another blog’s Banned Books Week coverage a few years ago, but said blog seems to have vanished, along with my post).
A child can’t just walk into GameStop and buy an M rated game or go see a PG-13 or R rated movie on their own, but books don’t have the same kind of overt restrictions. Games, especially fantastical ones such as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire the Masquerade have caused similar outrage and panic and Dungeons & Dragons is no stranger to banned books or being banned completely for alleged gang risks.
C What are five ways people can participate in Banned Books Week?
- Read a book. Preferably a banned book or a book about something someone didn’t want said. Whether it’s I Am Malala or Clifford the Big Red Dog, read it, discuss it, and learn why it was banned or challenged.
- If you’re a parent, student, or citizen of someplace, educate yourself on anything banned in your school, library, district, country, religious organization, etc. Be engaged. Be vocal. Many challenges that don’t succeed or bans that are overturned do so because other people brought attention to it or spoke out against it. And don’t just assume that not banning things means you’re getting the full story. Look at your (child’s) curriculum, your local bookstore, and your own bookshelf. What kind of voices and experiences are present. What ones aren’t. Why? What do you think of that? Support libraries. Support teachers. Support writers and storytellers. Support publishers, particularly those trying to give voices to often marginalized people or perspectives. Support bookstores. Support learning about the world and thinking for yourself.
- Check out the official Banned Books Week website for more information about all of this, as well as events you can participate in. The Virtual Read-Out is a yearly event in which people film themselves reading a banned book and share it to bring attention to these issues. Your local bookstore, library, or school may also have events, so look into it.
- The American Library Association and the Office for Intellectual Freedom are great resources where you can learn about all of the things I can’t cover or have only touched on in a single interview.
- My blog, Bound and Gagged, has covered Banned Books Week since 2012 and has been reviewing banned books just as long. There are also specific sections for Banned Books Week and YA/children’s books and related content. Shameless self-promotion, ho!
As my local library once said, Live Free and Read.
- Index Librorum Prohibitorum – an index of books prohibited by the Catholic Church
- List of Books Banned By Governments
- Banned Books Week On Facebook
Founder/Director Callie Garp has a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. Keep up with Callie here.
Shannon Barnsley is a fantasy writer, poet, and lifelong feminist from New Hampshire, currently living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Wolf Warriors: the National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax. Shannon graduated from Hampshire College with a degree in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion. She currently runs two blogs: one about banned books and censorship, the other about writing, mythology, and invisible illness.
This article was edited & illustrated by Callie Garp.