Many of us can name a fiction title that has been banned from libraries, schools, or even countries. But during Banned Books Week this year (September 21–27), it’s important to note that several of the most commonly banned books are works of nonfiction. Nonfiction books are also frequently among those challenged but not banned. According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Web pages on banned books, “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.”
Nonfiction books get challenged for many of the same reasons that works of fiction do—sexual content, religious objections, political viewpoints, and violent content, to name a few. Keeping an adult book on sex out of a preschool library is not considered banning, but keeping it out of the county library would be. Books that are welcome in schools in some states may be challenged or banned in another.
Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, spreading the word about the dangers to humans and wildlife caused by the use of pesticides. It sparked a revolution that changed farming practices, instigated new legislation, and sometimes pitted agricultural interests against conservationists. Over fifty years have passed, and this book remains on many lists of challenged and banned nonfictional works. Some people argue that the science used in the book overstated the problem, or that the rewards of pest-free agriculture outweighed the concerns in the book. Others point to it as the first voice of reason in an increasingly chemically dependent world. Wherever a reader stands on the topic, Silent Spring opened the ongoing discussion about what we put into our food, air, soil, and water.
And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, is a children’s picture book that tells the true story of two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who “adopted” an egg, hatching and nurturing the baby penguin. The depiction of a nontraditional family in this manner has kept the book off the shelves of some school libraries.
Free Spirit Publishing has seen books face challenges in some states. Among them, GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens by Kelly Huegel is being challenged in at least two states as having a homosexual agenda inappropriate for teens. Judy Galbraith, founder and president of Free Spirit, vividly remembers when a parent returned a copy of The Gifted Teen Survival Guide with the explanation that “this book only teaches children to think for themselves.”
When a challenge does not result in a book being banned from a district or school, it may lead people to request a revised edition for their use. Challenged segments of textbooks are sometimes expunged, or the books are released in various versions. This has been in the news as creationists challenge the teaching of theories of evolution, or school districts seek sex education materials that are less explicit than the original versions. Requests to expunge have come up here at Free Spirit as well. For example, inquiries have been made about removing references to suicide, sexual activity, and sexual orientation in Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral by Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja.
According to research from the ALA, parents and parent groups initiate most requests to ban books from school or community libraries. The three most common reasons for requesting censorship are that the work is sexually explicit, includes offensive language, or is inappropriate for the age group the library serves. Courts have been called upon to overturn censorship or banning, citing the First Amendment. Given the diversity of viewpoints in our society, we can probably expect many more books to face challenges or even be banned from school libraries. But the decision to ban a book is extreme. Nonfiction books are important resources for kids, and educators and parents can use them as springboards for discussions on countless topics.
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