We are in the midst of the American Library Association’s 30th annual Banned Books Week, when readers of all ages are encouraged to check out controversial books. Books can end up on banned lists for a variety of reasons. They may be considered racist, obscene, blasphemous, or inappropriate for the age group. Some of these banned and challenged books are literary classics well worth reading, while others really aren’t fit to be read.
Consider, for example, The Catcher in the Rye. Published in 1951 by J.D. Salinger, it’s at the top of the banned books list. And yet it’s still used in high school English classes. But why? The book is way overrated if you ask me. The main character is a 16-year-old guy who flunks out of a private prep school, borrows money from his kid sister to spend on booze, picks up a hooker, and ends up in a mental institution. He’s a whiny foul-mouthed hypocrite who despises his life but makes no effort to change it. He never learns from his mistakes, and he doesn’t even acknowledge that they are mistakes. While I don’t necessarily agree with censorship, wouldn’t it be better to read high quality literature that is both morally and spiritually edifying and teaches godly examples?
On the other hand, my boys love Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; in fact, those were the first full-length novels they read. And yet Huckleberry Finn has been on the banned books list ever since it was published in 1885. The ungrammatical vernacular voice in which Huck narrates the story was seen as coarse and unfit to read. Nowadays, due to its treatment of blacks and use of the n-word, the book is considered racist – which is rather ironic since the author was opposed to slavery, and his references to blacks accurately reflect the time in which the novel was written. In Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, there is an evil villain named “Injun Joe.” This has been viewed as racist against American Indians, but again the author was simply writing in the language of the time. Besides, the bad guy could just as well have been white. No one would have complained about that, would they?
Interestingly, quite a few banned books have been cautionary tales about the perils of totalitarian governments, mass conformity, and a complicit media that spews propaganda. For example, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and more recently, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. These books are futuristic but contemporary in their themes. They may be anti-religious, but the fictional environments serve to remind us of what happens when societies forsake God, by showing that such societies are incorrect and incompatible with our Christian morals, and thus should be avoided at all costs.
Not everyone agrees on which books should be banned. I’m sure you can recall the controversy surrounding Harry Potter due to its themes of witchcraft and wizardry. Christians didn’t appreciate author J.K. Rowling promoting “unchristian magic.” But most people don’t realize that even The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, as well as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – all of which are generally well-liked by Christians – have been challenged. And if you’re concerned about violence, you may be surprised to know that the unabridged versions of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm are just as violent as today’s movies and computer games.
Many children’s picture books have been banned, too. These include: The Five Chinese Brothers (racial stereotypes), The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (promotes colonialism), Little Black Sambo (racially derogatory slurs and pictures), Where the Wild Things Are (supernatural elements, and a child who yells at his mother), In the Night Kitchen (the boy is naked), Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (portrays police officers as pigs), The Lorax (criminalizes the logging industry), The Stupids (reinforces negative behavior; encourages disrespect to parents and authority), King & King (promotes homosexuality), and The Dirty Cowboy (partial nudity).
The Bible has been banned and burned by civil and religious authorities throughout history, but it still remains the most popular book ever printed. Many people think the Bible is banned in public schools. Generally speaking, though, students should be free to read the Bible on their own initiative just like any other book they might bring to school. Bibles are often found in school libraries along with other religious books, and biblical texts are sometimes included in literature anthologies or comparative religion courses. On the other hand, both the Merriam Webster and the American Heritage Dictionaries have been banned in various schools because of certain words that are defined in these volumes.
Have any of your favorite books been controversial? What books (if any) would you ban from your family’s library?
For more information about banned books, see:
http://www.factmonster.com/spot/banned-kids-books.html (Famous Banned Books.)
http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/censorship/bannedbooksthatshapedamerica (Banned Books That Shaped America)
http://classiclit.about.com/od/bannedliteratur1/tp/aa_bannedbooks.htm (Banned Books: Challenged and Banned Classic Literature)
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedclassics/reasonsbanned (Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century)
http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/banned-books.html (Banned Books Online)