"Marking 25 Years of Banned Books Week:
An Interview with Judith Krug"
46 Curriculum Review 1, September 2006, p.12
Please tell us the story of how Banned Books Week got started.
Back in 1982, I got a call in June from the Association of American Publishers. They said, "We've just discovered there have been a slew of books banned. We should do something to bring this to the attention of the American public. While you're guaranteed your freedom to read by the First Amendment, if you don't use that right, it's going to die." I really liked the idea. And he said, "One of the things we could do is to put all of the books that we know have been banned in the last 10 or 15 years in a cage, and put a chain around the cage so people can visualize that these books are locked up because somebody or some group doesn't want you to read them and you should make up your own mind about them." So I went to the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, laid the idea out before them, and six weeks later we celebrated the first Banned Books Week. And it has grown unbelievably since then. It's celebrated in thousands of libraries and a substantial number of bookstores.
How many school book challenges in the United States does your office hear about every year?
I can't give you precise numbers, but approximately three-quarters of the challenges we hear about are school-related. It is a whopping number.
Your Web site indicates that last year your office heard about more than 400 challenges, but that probably just scratched the surface.
My rule of thumb is, for every challenge we know about, there are four to five out there that we don't know about. We only recorded 405 challenges last year, down from 547 in 2004. And trust me, attempts to remove materials are not decreasing, they are increasing. There are a lot of reasons why people are not reporting challenges to us. They just get terribly caught up in protecting themselves. But we're there to help teachers, administrators and librarians. I'm not going to dictate what they do, but I'm certainly going to provide assistance if they want it. You never have to fight a censorship battle alone. The Office for Intellectual Freedom has an incredible program. We provide everything from a dry shoulder to cry on—because we understand what you're going through—all the way up to legal assistance that will take you to the U.S. Supreme Court.
So whatever the comfort level is, at least try to report those challenges so you have better data moving forward.
Exactly. And then we really know what's going on. We work with several states, and we're trying to get more states, to do a survey every year. Oregon does one, and the state of Washington is going to start one this year. They send an inquiry to every public library and school library in the state. They ask what materials, if any, were challenged and why—and what was the outcome? And the information that comes to the Office for Intellectual Freedom is confidential. The only things we report are the titles, the authors, and the state the challenge occurred in.
Do many of those challenges that you hear about succeed in getting material removed from schools?
The challenges we hear about are the ones where the materials have stayed on the shelves. One of the reasons I think we don't learn about some of these attempts to remove materials is because they were successful. If some of my colleagues have folded, in effect, or if the process has resulted in the removal of materials, occasionally they're not willing to make this kind of information public. We have to rely on the media to report those incidents, and very often the media are not doing their job, either.
What are some of the most commonly challenged titles? Does it go in cycles?
Yes and no. Julie of the Wolves was on our list 20 years ago, and two years ago it was one of our Top 10 most challenged materials. The kinds of materials that we see recurring on the Top 10 list on a relatively frequent basis are materials like Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If they're not on the list every year, they're certainly not off the list for very long. Of Mice and Men is almost always on the list because of the language.
Some popular current books get caught up in the cycle, too. The Harry Potter books have seen a lot of challenges in recent years.
Oh, yes. I always find that amazing as well as amusing. Here are books that have brought an entire generation of young people back to reading. I can't tell you how many young people go into libraries and ask the librarian, "Do you have anything else like this?" And of course there's loads of materials like Harry Potter, wonderful stories. The other thing about challenges is that people don't challenge materials that don't say something to the reader. If you look over the materials that have been challenged and banned over the years, they are the materials that speak to the condition of the human being, that try to illuminate the issues and concerns that affect human beings. They're books that say something, and they're books that have meaning to the reader. Innocuous materials are never challenged. When I look over the Banned Books Week lists, I'm basically looking at the Who's Who of 20th- and now 21st-century American literature.
Why do you believe it's so important to fight against book bans in schools?
Because schools are where children learn. Schools are where children have an opportunity to expand their minds, to look at things that they might not have any interest in until they're sitting in a classroom. It's so important to let them explore what's out there in the safe environment of the schools. If they have an issue or concern, they can talk to the teacher. It's absolutely vital to just turn kids loose in the library. Let the children try it. If they don't understand it, they're going to put it down, and what harm has been done? My belief is that if they do understand it, they're ready for it, and they should be reading it. Now, I know all parents don't agree with me, and that's all okay. But that's what I believe.
Are there ever instances when you think it's appropriate for a school to ban a book?
On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn't fit your material selection policy, get it out of there. But materials that adhere to the material selection statement that every school has, and that have been duly selected, we would fight alongside every librarian and every teacher to keep the books available.
Can you share tips for those battling school book challenges?
The first thing is, they never have to fight alone. We're there to help them. And when we discuss what can be done, we really try to tailor our assistance to what the political situation is and what the pressures are in the local community. But if the community is concerned about good education, they have to be concerned if somebody tries to have materials removed from availability to the young people. In that case, mobilizing the community, writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper, making sure people are at the school board meetings to defend the book—these are standard kinds of procedures that we recommend. The book needs to have its day in court and have its good points pointed out. Very often the teachers will step up to the plate, along with students themselves. Any student who reads a piece of material is probably going to gain something from it. Recreational reading, fun, is something they gain, as well as more knowledge, satisfaction of curiosity—the whole range of reasons why people read.
Anything we haven't covered that is important to get out there?
Any time a piece of material is challenged in a school and a teacher says to me, "Well, we won that battle, now what should I do?" I say, "Why don't you tell your class, 'This book I'm holding in my hand, and these books on this list I'm holding in my other hand are all books that somebody decided you shouldn't have the opportunity to read. So I think you all should pick a book and read it and tell us why you think you should be allowed to read that book.'" Some of the responses we get back from exercises like that make me sing. They are just wonderful. They renew my faith in not only these young people, but in the future of this country.
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This has been presented by SafeLibraries for educational purposes and more as allowed by US Copyright §107. Copyright belongs to the original owner, not SafeLibraries. No commentary has been added to this page to allow for unbiased review. As a portion of the content of this article has been in the news, I thought it best to make the entire article available. The graphic was added by me and is from the cover of American Libraries, May 2009.