Book lovers everywhere, get pumped: tomorrow is the start of Banned Books Week.
What does this mean, exactly? Honestly, not a whole lot for most of the world. If you live in Washington D.C., you can search around the city for books wrapped in the (irrational, ridiculous, pointless) reasons that they were banned, which is very cool. Anyone in Washington D.C. over the next week should take advantage of this rebellious and yet somehow also wholesome scavenger hunt fun.
But the rest of us have to celebrate on our own. We could all just go about our normal lives, taking for granted our freedom to read just about anything we want, or we could bake cakes shaped like books, with Fifty Shades of Grey written in probably-not-gray icing, Jim Dale’s audiobook narration of the entire Harry Potter series playing in the background, and goodie bags of inked-up pens and freshly sharpened pencils as party favors. (Am I the only person wondering why CVS doesn’t have a seasonal section for Banned Books Week?)
Really, the whole point of Banned Books Week is to learn about censorship, through the lens of some of the world’s favorite books. So this year, I put away my Jane Austen-style, Regency era nightgown and decided to ask (Google) the question: Why were these beloved books banned in the first place? I’ve compiled a list of some of the most Literary with a capital L masterpieces. Read on to find out just some of the silliness that has actually occurred in our nation’s colorful history.
By the way—none of these books were banned where I grew up. I read nearly all of them in high school, when I was young and naïve. Does no one care about my purity? What about my innocence? Oh, well. It’s too late now. Besides, being corrupted is way more fun.
The Adventures of Captain Underpants - Dav Pilkey
Yes, even my beloved Captain Underpants has been targeted. In fact, it was the most banned book in America in 2012. Some of my original readers (notice the possibly exaggerated plurality of the word “reader”) might remember when I reread this incredible text at the start of Girl Unaffiliated in an attempt to recall why I loved it so much.
(Before we get into the dumb banning that occurred-- Pilkey hilariously includes his own little disclaimer at the start of each book: "Sturgeon General's Warning: Some material in this book may be considered offensive by people who don't wear underwear." Keep this in mind as we go on. It provides a great visual.)
Short story short, I remembered. It’s hilarious, irreverent, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, a trait I admire in all things human or otherwise. I sort of understand why people who do take themselves way too seriously would ban a book as good as Captain Underpants. It’s humor is definitely scatological, a super word that describes an interest in the obscene. Alright, whatever, that’s totally your loss, Banners.
The books have also been challenged because they “encourage children to disobey authority.” I can think of another text that encourages people to defy authority, if not just because of its origins. It’s called The Freakin’ Constitution. But the last book in the series was banned for neither of those reasons.
Rather, it was banned because one of the protagonists, a mischievous yet adorable lad named Harold, grew up to be an artist. Oh, and he had a domestic partner named Billy. The matter-of-fact way in which author Dav Pilkey reveals Harold’s sexuality, without comment or explanation, is one all us creators/writers/influencers/humans can and should aspire to.
Basically, the Captain Underpants series is not just an exploration of pranks and potty humor, and as Pilkey himself has said, “As grown-ups, we need to respect our children's rights to choose what they want to read.”
The Catcher in The Rye - J.D. Salinger
The banning of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel by possibly the most popular recluse ever J.D. Salinger, is a little easier to believe than the banning of Captain Underpants. I mean, it does have some profanity in it. And, like, a scene with a prostitute. But compared to some of the things I've accidentally seen on television, it's not that bad.
So what's the real underlying issue here? Is it the vulgar language and occasionally crude scenes? Is it because Holden despises all that represents middle class values, which is something that so many Americans hold so very dear? Or is everyone just angry at Salinger for going into seclusion and not tweeting answers to readers' burning questions like J.K. Rowling does?
Turns out, it's not as psychologically exciting as my imagination can come up with. Boringly, profanity was a big reason. True, Holden curses every other word, and if not every other word, then at least every other sentence. But a book can't be this controversial based on foul language alone.
Here's where it gets interesting: in 1987, The Catcher in the Rye was banned from a school in North Dakota for even just discussing premarital sex. I haven't read this book in a while, but I don't think Holden "gets some" at any point (wow, I gagged a little even just writing that phrase). So it was actually just banned for the minute mention of premarital sex. In 1985, a school in Florida also banned the novel, citing its only reason being that the book is "unacceptable." It certainly doesn't help that only five years prior, a man named Mark David Chapman, while holding his personal annotated copy, shot and killed John Lennon in New York City. This unfortunate tie is made worse by the fact that Chapman assassinated Lennon because, in his words, he was "being a phony" (those of you who have read The Catcher in the Rye or even my Wednesday Word series are familiar with the term).
Despite all of the dumb reasons, and the admittedly crazy and terrible reasons, too, The Catcher in the Rye is consistently reinstated into the average high schoolers' literature curriculum. I remember reading it my freshman year of high school. And honestly, I loved it. It helped me feel, if nothing else, just a little bit less insane.
The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
I know. I know. This one is truly unbelievable.
How could anyone possibly ever even imagine banning such a historically, emotionally, and spiritually significant work? And reason is not because children might get nightmares from the atrocities that Frank describes with deeply beautiful language and honesty. It's not because it scares people that human beings once had to completely stop their own lives, hide in an attic, and yet still end up in the horrific Nazi death camps. It is because, in the midst of one of Frank's brief diary entries, the young teenage girl described the maturation of the female body.
Puberty. She talked about puberty, and everyone freaked out. Some schools even assigned censored versions to their English classes. Because no one can handle reading a couple of sentences about an intelligent girl maturely discussing sexual organs.
The thought makes me livid not only because I am a moderately decent human being, and not only because I am a reader who trusts books to read as they were written, but also because I am a proud woman who has read too freaking much about penises, who has seen too many crappy drawings of penises on bathroom stalls and textbooks, who has heard too many jokes about penises. One mention of a vagina, and people are spending money, time, and effort editing, reprinting, redistributing, and reassigning a classic masterpiece that somehow exists in a vagina-less world.
So, yes. I have very strong feelings about this banning, which to me is nothing less than a major injustice to the Frank family and to young girls and boys everywhere who deserve to read an accurate account of this miraculous and inspiring girl's childhood.
There you have it. As previously stated, banning books is ridiculous. But at least it reminds us why the freedom to write and the freedom to read are so important. Basically, get your butt to your local library and read whatever the heck you want, and don't forget to consider the things that some scared-o said you shouldn't read! No one can tell us what not to read! We are masters of our texts! We are captains of our words!