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Editorial September 2001
Book Challenges

By Hilary Williamson

The American Library Association promotes September 22 - 29, 2001 as Banned Books Week, pointing out that though a large number of books are challenged in the United States, there is also good news, since only a small number of them are actually banned, or removed from circulation. The Webster's Dictionary defines challenge as 'to arouse or stimulate especially by presenting with difficulties' and it's interesting to note that the most challenged books of all time are indeed those that challenge us most.

What topics do these books address and what difficulties do they present to us? According to the ALA, themes of challenged titles include violence, sexual content, offensive language, racism and the occult. It seems to me that we are exposed to the first three of these much more frequently on television (including the evening news), movies and videogames than in literature, and the offensive language that small children are exposed to on school buses would horrify most adults. Unfortunately, these themes are ubiquitous in today's society.

The difference is that books which challenge us on these topics usually do so in depth, stimulating consideration of pros and cons, right and wrong. While I am one of those who deplore the exposure that kids get to violence, sexual content and offensive language in the media nowadays and limit my own children's access, I have no desire to control my neighbors' viewing (or reading) habits. It's enough of a struggle setting rules for my own household, and the path of censorship leads down a slippery slope towards a controlling society like that of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

What about books that make us think about racism? I would certainly want to discuss with my children at length any book that promotes it, and believe it to be important that they understand what went on in history and what is happening in the world today. However, one trend that disturbs me is that which limits access to great writers in the past who are not politically correct nowadays. Authors like Rudyard Kipling who were very liberal in their own time, are often passed over now because of objections to the context in which they wrote. The historical setting should always be considered and discussed along with the book, but let's not lose great literature because we dislike the culture in which it was written.

Then there are the stories that cover the occult, or magic. It seems to me that the individuals who challenge these are seriously underestimating children. Do they really think that readers of Harry Potter believe in spells or will start attempting to play Quidditch off rooftops by broomstick? Note that these are the same people who work hard to surround children with the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus. Kids need a little magic in their lives and are smart enough to distinguish fact from fiction.

The ALA Quotes John Stuart Mill On Liberty ... 'the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error'.

The censorship of challenging books has been around since the birth of the printing press in 1448 Germany. I was saddened to read that Book Burning still goes on in the third millennium, but am reassured by the fact that the existence of the Internet and evolution of ebooks provide a huge challenge to those who would limit our access to ideas. The ALA motto for Banned Books Week is 'Develop Yourself: Expose Your Mind to a Banned Book'. Look over the most frequently Challenged Books (you may have missed some stimulating reads) and see if you can predict which books will be most challenged in 2001
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