The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank. (Yes, the author, not her book.) Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Twenty Boy Summer, by Sarah Ockler. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. What do all of these have in common? All were deemed objectionable, or unsuitable, or downright offensive. All were challenged in a library or school in the United States in 2010-- all, in fact, within the past month. Today kicks off Banned Books Week , when libraries nationwide will be focusing on the importance of our First Amendment rights. In light of current events, could there be a better time to talk about the freedom to read?
Recent controversies aside, the truth is that we've got it pretty easy in the U.S. when it comes to free speech. Our highest law protects it, our form of government encourages it, and a number of powerful lobbies stand ready to defend it from threat. For the most part, Americans are (excuse the pun) extremely vocal about protecting the right to speak their minds. Even the books I mentioned above are widely available in most states-- they're currently in print and popular enough that you'd likely find them at any major bookstore and most libraries. Our own library has copies of each title in multiple formats. Compared to many countries around the globe, free expression is not seriously endangered here.
Why, then, do librarians talk about banned books every September? The answer's simple: even in the Land of the Free, people continue to ban books, or at least to try. Let me be clear: there's absolutely nothing wrong with deciding a book's inappropriate for you, or for your family. That's your choice. (If you have concerns and want to make an informed decision, librarians would be happy to assist-- we LOVE talking about books.) Censorship goes a step beyond, though. By removing or restricting access to materials they find personally objectionable, censors take the right to decide away from everyone else in their community.
What does a little free choice matter, when removing "dangerous" content? The problem is that removing a book doesn't make the idea or issue go away; it just leaves everyone a little bit less informed about it. The ability of its citizens to learn, think, and speak freely is essential to a healthy democracy. For many, that journey begins with reading freely. In his commencement address  to Dartmouth College  in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told the class, “Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”
Think for yourself, and let others do the same. Choose to read a banned book  this week.
For a few other resources on Banned Books Week around the web, check out:
The New York Times: 10 Ways to Celebrate Banned Books Week 
The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression: Banned Books Week 
Google Books: Banned Books 
BBC News Viewpoint: Book burning is no great trick 
For more about the books that were challenged this month (and some wonderful dialogue on censorship), please visit:
School Library Journal: Ellen Hopkins Uninvited to Lit Festival; Fellow Authors Withdraw in Protest 
The Springfield News-Leader: Stockton book ban upheld 7-0 in packed public forum 
The Springfield News-Leader: Scroggins: Filthy books demeaning to Republic education 
The Springfield News-Leader: Anderson: Description of 'Speak' story may mislead Republic's citizens 
The Springfield News-Leader: Ockler: Debate over books fine, but limiting our choices is not