Banning a book can go like this: An outraged parent complains about a book to the school librarian or principal. After a noisy debate, the school administrators decide that the book should be removed from circulation.
Or, banning a book can go like this: A librarian receives a new book. Perhaps it shows LGBT issues or atheism in a sympathetic light. Perhaps it portrays civil rights struggles in a way that might offend some local sensibilities. Whatever the reason, she quietly puts the book in a back room. Then she politely discourages questions about it.
The start of Banned Book Week tomorrow reminds us just how common book-banning efforts are in this country. The American Library Association (ALA) reports that there were 490 challenges to books in schools and libraries in 2009. But the ALA also estimates that 70 to 80 percent of challenges are never reported. And in those cases, the books in question very often simply disappear from library shelves.
Why is this an issue for Teaching Tolerance? Because the books most often targeted by censors are ones that advocate open-mindedness or that point out an injustice. Take a look at the ALA’s list of 10 most-challenged titles. You’ll see that it includes And Tango Makes Three, a book that teaches young children about same-sex families. And it includes To Kill A Mockingbird, a 50-year-old book that’s widely viewed as one of the great American novels.
Banned Books Week was created in part as a reminder of what’s important—freedom of thought. And right on cue, the Texas State Board of Education has moved to remind us of the many tools that censors have at their disposal. Today, the board is set to pass a resolution condemning past social studies textbooks for “pro-Islamic, anti-Christian” views. The book in question, which has not been in schools for years, featured 159 lines of text about Islam but only 82 lines about Christianity.
Banned Books Week is also the quintessential teachable moment. Among other things, teachers can use it to remind students about why our country was founded, why we have a First Amendment to the Constitution and why the struggle for freedom never ends. You can also discuss the many reasons that people censor books. They include prejudice, fear, misunderstanding and a straightforward lack of tolerance.
Price is managing editor of Teaching Tolerance.