Banned Books: A Tactic Being Used to Stimulate the Desire to Read

Communities are celebrating International Literacy Day by promoting controversial classics.

Utilized banned or challenged books to promote literacy is a tactic that is becoming commonly used. (Photo: Phil Ashley)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

What happens when you tell a child they can’t read a book? Of course, they want to read it.

“If you really want to sell books, have them banned,” book historian Kevin Grace, head of University of Cincinnati Archives and Rare Books Library, said in an interview. “While it’s a characteristic of many cultures, I think it’s especially true in America. If something is banned, we can’t wait to get our hands on it.”

Banned Book Week, which begins on Sept. 24, was founded 30 years ago by First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug and now has a host of sponsors including the American Library Association and American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

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According to the American Library Association, in 2011, some of the most challenged books included “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley and “My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy” by Dori Hillestad Butler.

But banned books are becoming a commonly used tactic to encourage literacy. Throughout the country, as International Literacy Day is celebrated on Sept. 8, libraries and organizations are promoting popular books that often end up on banned lists.

In Tillamook, Ore., the town’s library has a “read-out” planned for teenagers who will read passages from Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Giver, and In the Night Kitchen. The readings will be recorded and on display during banned book week.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania has created a website for teenagers focused on controversial books and graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchless and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The website also asks teens to vote in a poll about what “most challenged” author they would like to meet. The list includes Philip Pullman, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Chris Curtcher.

But The Uprise Book Project goes one step beyond just examining banned books for one week out of the year. The project, which is still in its infancy, was created to end “the cycle of poverty through literacy, providing banned books to underprivileged teens."

The program is currently limited to the Portland and Vancouver, Washington area.

According to its website, the site states, “We think that parents have a right and an obligation to monitor their own child’s access to literature they feel might be inappropriate, but they can’t control another child’s access. By banning and challenging books in schools and libraries, though, they’re doing exactly that.”

Ultimately, the site claims, teenagers will always want to read what they are told they can’t, and that’s how it should be.

“It’s very difficult to ban a book,” Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University and general editor of The Cambridge History of the American Novel said in an interview. “Information wants to be free.”

Cassuto said that students should read banned books and learn the stories behind their banning.

“How we teach banned books best is by teaching the stories of how a book gets banned,” he said. “What gets banned is often what is at the edges of what is acceptable and what is new. A lot of new stuff gets banned because people don’t understand it and get afraid of it. The newness of the literature clashed with the cultural mores of the time, and you learn something about the distance of then and now.”

When students know a book is controversial and then read it, the results can be highly beneficial.

“Banned Book Week’s message is great for stimulating critical thinking in young people,” Angela Maycock, assistant director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in an interview. “They can step back and analyze what it is about this book that someone may think is objectionable, then think about it and talk about it. It sends a powerful message that in this country we all still have the right to think and read for ourselves and hold these opinions.”

Do you have a favorite banned book? Tell us in comments.

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