Staff Columnist

Book banning sadly persists as an American tradition

Americans observe 'Banned Books Week' September 23 through 29

Ann Burton of Coralville reads
Ann Burton of Coralville reads "The Chocolate War" Monday, Sept. 26, 2011 at the Coralville Public Library in a live display highlighting books that have been banned or challenged in schools and libraries across the country.The display is an effort to draw attention to banned and challenged books, and to support the freedom to read and access information. (Brian Ray/ SourceMedia Group News)

Schools and libraries marked the past week as Banned Books Week, a time to recognize historic and ongoing efforts to restrict access to literature in the United States. We Americans are supposed to value free speech, “even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular,” according to the American Library Association, which organizes the observance.

Sadly, banning books is a long-held American tradition. You’re unlikely to find a good ol’ fashioned book burning these days, but busybody parents and puritanical activist groups continue lobbying to restrict access to media they object to, even in publicly funded and democratically governed institutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa maintains a list of books that have been challenged in Iowa libraries, counting 17 titles since 2005. It’s difficult to see why several of the books would need to be kept from the hands of young Americans.

“Thirteen Reasons Why,” the basis of a popular and controversial Netflix series debuting last year, deals with bullying and suicide. Suicide prevention advocates have raised concern about the book and TV series, although many advise it’s an opportunity for discussion, rather than cause for censorship.

“Becoming Sister Wives” discusses polygamy, a best-selling memoir authored by Kody Brown and his four wives, stars of the television show “Sister Wives.” Episodes of the show are widely available on TV and the internet.

“Buster’s Sugartime,” based on a story from the television show Arthur, features a young bunny who visits Vermont to learn about maple syrup, and happens to include a character with two moms. The book does not mention the word lesbian and does not detail anything about the parents’ sex life.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is a modern American classic about author Maya Angelou’s young life and her encounters with racism, rape and other trauma.

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“Playing Without the Ball” is about a teen boy’s experiences with family life, basketball and dating. It mentions sexual activity, although the author makes clear the protagonist practices safe sex.

Nationally, the American Library Association reported 354 book challenges at libraries, schools and universities last year, which is up slightly from the previous year and no doubt only captures a portion of attempted censorship.

You probably notice most of the challenged literature deals with content social conservatives might object to. That seems a bit ironic, considering some of my fellow conservatives also cry oppression at social media regulations or college campus speech restrictions. Both sides can recognize the stifling of free expression when it fits their narrative.

In the Iowa-centric film Field of Dreams, townspeople gather before the local school board to call for banning literature by an author who is “a pervert, and probably a communist too,” according to one attendee. Annie Kinsella, wife of the protagonist, delivers an impassioned defense of free speech. When she asks for a show of hands for who supports the Bill of Rights, we see she has won the crowd over.

America needs more of Annie Kinsella. Do your part by reading a banned book.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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