Banned Books Week

Image by Pretty Sleepy Art from Pixabay

The American Library Association (ALA) held its year Banned Book Week this year from September 18-24. It highlights books challenged at schools or removed from reading lists or libraries.

Book banning is, alas! back in style, especially when it comes to school libraries and books for classrooms. According to American Library Association, in 2019, there were 377 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services against 566 books. This dropped [perhaps because of the pandemic?—my note] 156 challenges against 273 books in 2020. In 2021, it jumped to 729 challenges to 1597 books. YIKES!

Online activism among conservative groups is no doubt behind many of the challenges. Stated reasons for the challenges include “sexually explicit” material, “offensive language,” materials deemed “unsuited to age group,” “violence,” and  “homosexuality.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The only thing more dangerous than letting kids read what they’re curious about is to lock up the bookshelf, IMHO.

The following essay is one I wrote and posted on October 3, 2008 (could it really be that long ago?) for the now defunct and much-lamented site, Epinions. Member pestyside hosted a yearly write-off in honor of Banned Book Week. It deals with some less serious issues. Of course, I tweaked it a bit. No piece of writing is ever done:

With the munchkins settled back in school, and the last bit of fall fading into winter—or what passes for winter in southern California—it’s time to pause and celebrate our intellectual freedom with (member) pestyside’s Banned Book Week Write Off and review a book on the American Library Association’s List of Most Challenged Books. Number 15 on the List from 1990-1999 is the Goosebumps series of children’s books

Goosebumps was a series of children’s books written from 1992-1997 that featured putting a child in scary, often surreal circumstances. The text was written from third- to seventh-grade reading level. Spin-offs, including furthers series, a feature movie and graphic novels, are also available.

Over the past several months, I’ve read and reviewed about twenty of the sixty or so volumes of the original series, and, though I hope this never becomes my area of expertise, I feel this is background enough to offer an informed opinion on the books.

These are not works of deep philosophical thought. No one will accuse them of being great literature. The term “formula fiction” is often used when discussing them—and not without justification. Neither morality tales nor vocabulary builders, they are nothing more than what they present themselves as being—entertainment.

The books I read ran to roughly 120 pages with short chapters, nearly all ending with mini-cliffhangers or false alarms. Most were written in the first person with a 12-year-old protagonist, who was just as likely to be a girl as a boy. The themes were ostensibly “scary” and often dealt with monsters, ghosts, werewolves, magic, etc. The dialogue was kid-friendly but did not overindulge in slang. The main character often had one or more younger siblings with whom there was some annoyance, but there was also caring, especially if they had to work together.

Never is a child killed during the action of the book. However, there are ghosts of children (Ghost Beach and The Headless Ghost). The one time the protagonists die (Shocker on Shock Street) [spoiler alert], they turn out to have been robots.

There is no sex, no drugs, and very little rock’n’roll. The few teenagers portrayed are obnoxious and bothersome. There is some violence and quite a few, for lack of a better term, gross-outs. Adults, including the children’s parents, are either absent or ineffectual. Sometimes, as in the case of the first two books, Welcome to Dead House and Stay Out of the Basement! the kids may even do the rescuing.

When the books have been challenged, the stated cause is often because parents believe they are too frightening for their children. Some claim they have given their children nightmares. These are legitimate concerns, and I support the rights of parents to control what their children read. Nevertheless, in practical terms, they’ll have better luck doing this with a seven-year-old than with a seventeen-year-old.

Some of the things in the books I read could indeed frighten children, particularly sensitive children. One genuinely creepy moment comes in The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight when Jodi, half-asleep, looks out of her bedroom window at her grandparents’ house and thinks she sees the scarecrows in the field trying to get down off their stakes in the moonlight.

More serious, though, is an incident in The Curse of Camp Cold Lake when Sarah wants to leave camp so badly she pretends to drown, thinking someone will have to call her parents to come to get her after that. While she’s drowning, she meets up with the ghost Della, who asks her to stay with her. Sara runs away from Della but finds herself being given mouth-to-mouth on the beach beside the lake. This is a nice, creepy ghost story in many ways, but I found the near-drowning incident too intense for a book intended for children.

When speaking of censorship with respect to children’s books, the question is framed differently from censorship of adult books. My personal view is that children should read whatever they are curious enough to read, perhaps with adult support if needed. It’s not that kids have the right to any reading material they wish—they don’t, if for no other reason than someone else is footing the bill for the books, whether that’s Mom and Dad or taxpayers through school libraries or public libraries. But encouraging them to explore is healthy and, I believe, necessary.

Should school libraries use some of their limited budgets to buy Goosebumps books simply because kids will read them? Many librarians argue that it matters less what kids read than that they develop the habit of reading for pleasure. At first blush, this may sound self-serving on their part, but my gut (for what that’s worth) tells me that there is something to this argument. Kids who read for pleasure tend to build vocabulary and be exposed to new ideas whether they planned it or not. In my reading of Nancy Drew, lo, these many years ago, I first learned words like “bungalow” and “counterfeit.”

The very best of the Goosebumps books make the main characters think to solve their problems. How I Learned to Fly, Attack of the Mutant, and It Came From Beneath the Sink are a few examples. They do so without preaching or moralizing and often with a healthy dose of humor. After being discomfited and embarrassed by the evil Masked Mutant, League of Good Guys of Superhero member the Galloping Gazelle tells protagonist Skipper, “You’re on your own, kid.” He uses the fastest legs in the universe and takes to his heels. Skipper is at first incredulous but manages to do just fine without him and defeats the Masked Mutant by using just his wits.

For parents concerned that their children may be frightened by the books, I can only advise you to read them first or read them with your child. With very few exceptions, the books are great fun and imbued with a lot of kid-appropriate humor.

I do not question the right of parents to determine what their children read. I have more difficulty with any given set of parents determining what the kids down the block read—both on civil liberty grounds and the grounds that such bans don’t work. They may punish less well-known authors without “protecting” reader. Or, they may make an author wealthy. For example, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah (legal decree) got everyone reading The Satanic Verses. [Hoping for Rushdie’s swift recovery] Closer to home, I re-read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was in high school after hearing that a school board wanted to ban it from the school library. I wanted to see if I missed anything.

I would ask that before anyone petitions to remove a book from a school library to see if a compromise could be arranged. Perhaps a reserve section for older children or an area for books that need parental permission for children to access could be created.

Encouraging children to read for pleasure and to explore is a precious gift.

Happy Banned Book Week.

Now go out and read a banned book! Or, better yet,-write one!

Image by Davie Bicker from Pixabay

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

8 thoughts on “Banned Books Week

  1. I love this quote from your blog “I do not question the right of parents to determine what their children read. I have more difficulty with any given set of parents determining what the kids down the block read—both on civil liberty grounds and the grounds that such bans don’t work.” It summarizes exactly how I feel as well. People talking a lot about freedom often want to take it away from others. Thanks for an interesting read.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Thomas. Too often “freedom” means “I have a cudgel and I’m going to tell you what to do.” Nope. Doesn’t work that way.

    1. True. But it’s more complicated than that. Most of the banned/challenged books have to do with books read in school or bought for school libraries. If, say, I’m uncomfortable with my kid reading a book about LGBTQ subjects (I wouldn’t be and I don’t have kids, but that’s another story) do I have the right to decide my neighbor’s kids don’t read it in school? Even more insidious are challenges involving books that deal with race. Little Johnny doesn’t need to read about slavery or lynching, now, does he? ’cause I’ve already told him the slaves were happy and the people who got lynched probably deserved it. (To remove all doubt, yes, I’m being sarcastic)

      Oh…. sorry… went off on a bit of a rant there….

      1. Uh I was referring to the idiots who feel the need to ban books, I am totally aware of what kinds of books are being banned. This shit infuriates me.

      2. Ya got me, growing up because my parents didn’t believe in babysitting i saw R rated films all the time, not exactly the same, but i think i turned out alright

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