Freedom of Speech, but what about the Freedom to Write?

As Americans, we celebrated the Fourth of July this past Wednesday. The day is meant to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It was 242 years ago that 13 colonies of the British Empire declared themselves free and formed the United States of America. Since that time, men and women have fought and died for the country. Because of their sacrifice, the rest of us enjoy a list of freedoms. Some examples include the freedom of the press, religion, speech, right to assemble peaceably, the right to bear arms, and many others. 

Now I know that in this current political climate there is much discussion about getting rid of some of these rights (the right to bear arms primarily). I could rant about that at another time. What I’m going to rant about is the freedom to read. 

Every year, the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books. The intent of this list is to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. The OIF base this list from media stories and voluntary challenge reports that are sent to the OIF. In 2017, the OIF tracked 354 challenges to library, school, and university materials. There were 416 books that were challenged or banned in 2017. Below is the list of the top ten most challenged books. Some may surprise you.

1. “Thirteen Reasons Why” written by Jay Asher. It was challenged because it discusses suicide. You all might recognize the title from the Netflix series that’s based from the book.

2. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” written by Sherman Alexie. Even though it was a National Book Award winner, it was challenged due to profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.

3. “Drama” written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. It received the Stonewall Honor Award and was challenged because it includes LGBT characters. 

4. “The Kite Runner” written Khaled Hosseini. This novel was challenged and banned because it includes sexual violence and was thought to lead to terrorism and the promotion of Islam.

5. “George” written by Alex Gino. This Lambda Literary Award winner was challenged and banned because it included a transgender child.

6. “Sex is a Funny Word” written by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth. This children’s book was challenged because it addressed sex education.

7. “To Kill a Mockingbird” written by Harper Lee. This Pulitzer Prize novel was challenged and banned due to violence and the usage of racist language.

8. “The Hate U Give” written by Angie Thomas. This book was challenged and banned in school libraries due to vulgarity, drug use, profanity, and offensive language. 

9. “And Tango Makes Three” written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole. This book was challenged due to it featuring a same-sex relationship.

10. “I Am Jazz” written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. This autobiographical picture book co-written by the 13 year old protagonist was challenged because it addresses gender identity.

I think it’s really interesting to see the reasons why these books are challenged by the public. You can go to ala.org and look at each list by the year. Two years ago Fifty Shades of Grey and The Holy Bible were on this list. Now it’s populated with books that address sexual identity and violence. Again, I could talk forever about the way American viewpoints change yearly based solely on these lists. 

For example, in 2001 the most challenged book was the Harry Potter series due to topics of anti-family, occult, religious viewpoints, and violence. That same year Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings were on the list.

As an author, book censorship is a very interesting issue. When you’re writing a book you’re trying to stay true to the characters and the plot itself. When you’re editing, you have to think about the content and how it would sit with the readers. Will the readers love it or will they rebuke it and never read anything from you ever again? I’m just a lowly author that only has a few books and short stories to his name. What I write might just determine the success of my future works. There’s a fine balance. Surely, bigger named authors don’t have this problem right?

I read in an article from The Salt Lake Tribune last week that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name is being stripped from an award named after her. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) created a book award named after Laura Ingalls Wilder. The award was meant to honor the highly respected author. She was the first person to receive the award. 

The issue surrounding the stripping of her name is due to her book series, “Little House on the Prairie,” which was written in 1935. Since 1952, there were complaints of offensive statements about Native Americans. Late June of this year the ALSC voted to strip her name from the award.

Look, I’m not going to win any awards or have awards named after me (the Master Award for Literary Awesomeness does have a nice ring to it), but this is absurd. In my opinion, Wilder is such a prolific author and only wrote in context to the times. Punishing authors for something that was written in an entirely different time period is so absurd to me.

Freedom of expression is one of those rights that our forefathers fought for 242 years ago. It’s part of the Bill of Rights. As authors, we have the right to write (ha, right to write) whatever we want. Here’s the problem with that though. Look at the titles I’ve mentioned in the top ten list. Those authors are being censored because they enacted that inalienable human right. Look at “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. The racist language used in that book is nothing explicit or over the top. It was used appropriately in the context of that time and location. I don’t condone the usage of that language, but to deny that it was ever uttered or censor the public from reading that book is absolutely absurd in my mind.

Censorship has its place in a civilized society. However, it’s also a slippery slope. Who’s censoring these books, why are they being censored, and should they be censored are questions that shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

Who watches the Watchmen?

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