What do “The Great Gatsby,” “Captain Underpants” and “The Lorax” have in common?
They’ve all been banned from libraries.
This is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, both a celebration of freedom and a warning against censorship.
Launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of book challenges, the event spotlights the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
Every day, librarians are on the front lines, safeguarding free access to information. We reached out to libraries in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington, where the guiding principle is that what a child reads is up to parental discretion.
Yet, 42 percent of books in 2016 were challenged by parents.
The Herrick Memorial Library in Wellington recently heard a challenge when a child checked out the audio book “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. Penned in 1908, the book refers to donkeys as asses, and a parent felt the book shouldn’t be in the children’s section of the library.
Director Janet Hollingsworth, along with two other librarians and a board member, read and discussed the text. Ultimately, “The Wind in the Willows” was retained, but moved to the teen section.
Removing the book would not have prevented it from winding up in a child’s hands, Hollingsworth said. Books can be downloaded on smartphones and purchased online.
Like most librarians, she takes a hard stand on censorship. “As long as I’m here, I’ll fight,” she said. She has worked for Herrick Memorial library for 15 years.
Hollingsworth said Banned Books Week is needed to highlight all the stories, ideas and viewpoints that are out there. “It’s an absolute necessity that books be accessible to everybody. We don’t know who it’s going to impact. It may help save somebody or answer the questions they need answered.”
Librarians protect that right, she said, by following their policies and not backing down in the face of negative opinion.
The Amherst Public Library follows the same practice. Librarian Nancy Tomek said that, outside of pornography, a public library has to have something for everybody.
One of the most challenged books on record is the Harry Potter series, which received the most complaints from 2000 to 2009.
The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of challenges and found J.K. Rowling’s book series has faced numerous calls for censorship from religious leaders who condemned the books as Satanic.
“It’s a costume on Halloween, there are movies, there are posters,” Tomek said. “Banning the book isn’t going to do anything in terms of the exposure your child will have.”
Withholding books from the public spikes interest, making the text a powerful forbidden fruit. Librarians do not base their collection on a particular list of banned books. Books are ordered based on popularity, Hollingsworth said.
When Harry Potter was in the hot seat, she overstocked her shelves with copies for the children, young adult, and adult areas to give readers a shorter waiting list.
“If you want to make a book popular, put it out there as being banned,” she said. “They were the highest demanded books in the library for a while.”
Upon installing a banned book display at the Amherst library, Tomek witnessed the same behavior.
She said many people have been perusing the frequently challenged books on display. “It’s the nature of the beast,” she said. “It’s a curiosity more than anything devious, I think.”
Other books on the ALA’s list include “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, which raised concerns that “a group of teenagers will want to try it,” and “I Am Jazz,” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, about a transgender teen; it has been challenged on grounds of “homosexuality, sex education, and religious viewpoint.” “Religious viewpoint” was also the basis for the challenge against the Bible.
Often, children’s books are contested for including same-sex parents. Tomek said there are children in similar situations who find comfort in the text, so those books stay on the shelves. “We have to serve the public,” she said.
Kelly Molesky of Oberlin Public Library said her parents let her read everything when she was a kid.
“If some church, or some organization, or some parents group has decided that a book is not OK, that shouldn’t have anything to do with anyone else,” she said. “What you don’t want your child to read is one thing, but I’m not going to judge my neighbor for what he does.”
Parents are the key role in what books children are checking out, Tomek said.
“We have very strong readers in the third grade who want to read a young adult novel, and most have things they shouldn’t be exposed to at that young of age, but that can’t come from us. It has to come from the parents.” she said. “We can recommend books based on comprehension level but we cannot put ages on books.”
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @hamaemNews