This is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, and you may have been tagged in an Internet meme that asks you to count the number of frequently-challenged classics you've read. (For the record, I've read 92 of that list of 100; I never managed to finish Catch-22 or The Satanic Verses, and don't believe any non-English major who claims to have read Finnegan's Wake.)
But citing recognized classics that get challenged just allows us over-educated liberals to feel smug about our intellectual and cultural superiority. The reason banning books remains an issue we all need to pay attention to is that many challenged books don't have much to recommend them; they're not particularly insightful or well-written, they're not permanent works of art, they're offensive or creepy or just plain gross.
People's right to access to the asinine and disgusting is the point of the First Amendment. Why take the trouble to codify freedom of speech, except to protect the rude and obnoxious and iconoclastic? John Brown, hero of the abolitionist movement, was a not a man you'd have invited to dinner. Over the years our democracy has survived the crypto-fascism of Father Coughlin and the militance of Malcolm X; we'll get through the rantings of Glenn Beck and Michael Moore, too. Only through the juxtaposition of these extremes can a consensus emerge over time. (The people who wring their hands about how uncivil our discourse has become are ignorant sentimentalists, by the way; the American forum has always been brutal, it's just that the Internet makes it louder and omnipresent.)
Anyway, the ALA's position is that the First Amendment is for everyone, and it backs that position as a friend of the court in challenges against books, as unpopular as those books might be. Here are a few of the lesser-known books that have survived these challenges in recent years:
1. Male and Female Under 18, Nancy Merrick & Eve Merriam, eds. This book's subtitle is "Frank Comments from Young People about Their Sex Roles Today," which gives you a hint about why it was challenged. Published in 1973, it's an anthology of poetry that includes an especially frank poem, "The City to a Young Girl," written by then-15-year-old Jody Caraviglia. If you follow that link, you'll see that the poem is very raw — too raw, in fact, for the School Committee of Chelsea, MA, which voted to ban the book from the high school library. In the 1978 case Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro ruled: "The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies."
2. Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden. Originally published in 1982 (and still in print), this is a novel for young adults about the romance between Annie Kenyon and Liza Winthrop, 17-year-old girls in New York City. It's won several awards, and was cited by the School Library Journal as one of the 100 most influential books in the 20th century. It's also #48 on the ALA's list of books most frequently challenged between 1990 and 2000. In Case v. Unified School District No. 233, the U.S. District Court ruled that the Olathe, KS School Board had violated its own materials selection policies in banning the book, by banning the book because of ideological objections.
3. Voodoo and Hoodoo: The Craft as Revealed by Traditional Practitioners, Jim Haskins. The challenge to this book (Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board) worked its way through the Louisiana courts and was finally settled privately, with the book being made available to students on special reserve. It's a history of voodoo and hoodoo practices that includes descriptions of specific rituals, and the school board took it off the library shelves. Several parents sued, charging that members of the school board hadn't read the book but were basing their decision on excerpts provided by the Christian Coalition.
4. Heather Has Two Mommies, Leslea Newman, and Daddy's Roommate, Michael Willhoite. If you listen to conservative talk radio, you already know all about these books, which survived a 2000 challenge in Wichita Falls, TX (Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas). Here's the point of the First Amendment: it serves all sectors of the American public, including those who live in ways that other members of the community don't like. The fact that same-sex parents offend some people does not mean that my cousin's son shouldn't be able to read a book about a family like his own.
5. Ms. magazine. Okay, not a book, but an illustration of how silly these challenges can get. The Nashua, NH school board ordered the removal of Ms. magazine from a high school library in 1979; the U.S. District Court ruled that the school board "failed to demonstrate a substantial and legitimate government interest sufficient to warrant the removal of Ms. magazine." I'd guess the challenge made Ms. far more popular in that particular library than it was before the ban.
Which is something to keep in mind, when thinking about challenging a book. According to UNESCO, 172,000 books were published in the United States in 2005 (the most recent number I could find). Most of those books sank like stones, and no one remembered them a year later, much less 20 years later. Challenging a book makes it part of the permanent historical and cultural record, and is no more effective than spooning beach sand back into the ocean. It's time better spent reading to one's kids.