Right now my son is taking a class that is discussing arguments for and against banning books. So it was with more than my usual interest that I read the list released this week by the American Library Association of the 10 books that have received the most requests during 2011 to ban them from schools or public libraries. Because it is the young teen obsession of the moment, most of the headlines will highlight the inclusion of The Hunger Games series, which came in as #3 among the 326 reported challenges last year. However, what is more interesting to me is the way The Hunger Games differ from the other books on the list, and what that tells us about our attitudes to young people and literature.
Here is the list of the top 10 books and my abbreviations for the reasons they were challenged. I will admit up front that I haven't read any of them except The Hunger Games series and the two "oldies but goodies" that have been complained about for years:
1) ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
Language; Religion; Sex
2) The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
3) The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
(see below for reasons)
4) My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
5) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Language; Racism; Religion; Sex
6) Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Sex; Language; Religion
7) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Insensitivity; Sex; Racism; Religion
8) What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
9) Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
Drugs; Language; Sex
10) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
That is, to summarize:
#1 reason for challenge: Sex (8/10 books)
#2 reason for challenge: Language--presumably profanity and/or racial/sexual slurs (7/10 books)
#3 reason for challenge: Religion (4/10 books)
...and then there are a few additional reasons that apply to only one or two books. This is not to say that they are not important issues (Drugs, Racism, etc.), but they apply to the minority in terms of why the books are sought to be banned.
Now let's look at the reasons why The Hunger Games was banned. The first reason on the list, which is presumably the most frequently-given cause for concern, was:
Anti-ethnic? I don't remember ethnicity being an issue at all in the books. The ALA seems to attribute this to the filming of the movie, since apparently the complaints tended to complain about African Americans being cast in "lighter skinned" roles or vice versa.
The next reason given is Anti-family. Again, I don't get that at all. Certainly Katniss' main motivation, at least in the first book, and really throughout the series, is her love for and desire to protect her family. There are some less idyllic family relationships, but it seems to me that most of the families that we do see are pretty close and good role models. Perhaps they just don't like that the government is taking these young people from their families? I don't know what the concern is here.
Reason number three is Insensitivity. They don't explain exactly what that means. But I guess a bunch of teenagers killing each other could be classified as Insensitive. Certainly, sensitivity is not a virtue that is lauded in the books--but, then, it rarely is when one is fighting for one's survival.
Reason number four is Language. I don't remember much use of profanity or slurs in the books. I think what offensive language there is would certainly, in my mind, be overshadowed by other concerns.
Reason number five is Occult/Satanic. Once again, I don't recall anything that would fall into that category. In fact, the book is almost relentless practical and material; I don't believe there is any discussion of spiritual elements at all (for example, there don't seem to be any priests/minister/religious authorities or churches/temples, etc. in the land of Panem).
Only number six can I really fathom, which is a complaint about Violence. As I have written here and here, I am concerned about particularly young adolescents being wrapped up in all the violence and missing the political and morale message of the series, which is what I think makes this an excellent triology of books. I wouldn't ban it, but the excessive violence and mature political themes is why I tend to encourage parents of middle schoolers to delay having their children read the books until they are in high school and are a bit more mature.
So it amazes me that is the last reason given, and that The Hunger Games is the only one of the top 10 would-be banned books of the year that raises the issue of violence. Rather, it is the issue of Sex, and then Offensive Language, that seems to be causing the more ire among those who want to censor the books in schools and libraries.
Of course, our values in these areas differ from family to family. For example, I don't use profanity, and my son doesn't use it, and that would be way down on my list of reasons to restrict him from reading a particular book. I am also personally of the opinion that it is good for students to read about some of these controversial issues, like sex and drugs, as they are coming to grips with making those kinds of decisions in their own lives. Certainly, I would rather have my son learn by reading about them then experimenting with them in real life! But that is my philosophy.
However, I will say that for this Banned Book class, each child had to choose a book to read from the comprehensive list of banned books (in agreement with his or her family, of course). My son wanted to read the most frequently banned book, which was Catcher in the Rye. That book, of course, was one of the first and still one of the most frequently banned because of...Sex and Language. But he read it, and his reaction was much the same as my was when I read, long, long ago in high school--it's OK, but I don't know what the big deal is.