The destruction of books is not a new concept to the civilized world. Ancient tablets, often in burnt fragments, have been found in parts of the world dating back to 4100 BCE (Baez 2008, 22). These artifacts tell the modern world that the war on books is not a recent development; this battle has been fought for thousands of years, and will probably continue to be fought for thousands of years to come. In recent years, a certain genre of literature has been in the crosshairs of book destroyers, but in a different way besides just burning the books themselves. The banning and challenging of children’s fantasy and occult literature is among many of the issues faced by libraries and schools in the twenty-first century.
Even though books have suffered burning fates for thousands of years, the places that housed the books were generally safe. The Library of Alexandria is one of the most famous libraries in the world, namely because it was one of the first libraries to be destroyed by fire. There are many theories as to the destruction of the library. One theory is that the Romans attacked Alexandria, persecuted the librarians, and destroyed books about magic and alchemy. Diocletian, the Roman emperor, was afraid the people of Alexandria would learn how to turn metals into gold (Baez 2008, 53). It seems that fear of the occult is not a recent idea.
While the United States has not been without its censorship challenges since the beginning of the country’s inception, the First Amendment was written into the United States Constitution to given certain freedoms to its people. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” On the American Library Association’s website, according to their Library Bill of Rights, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” These two statements together create a profound effect on the banning and challenging of books in America. However, even with these statements, Americans have a hard time agreeing with one another about what constitutes free speech, and whether or not we should be exposed to everything just because we can. There are many Supreme Court cases of citizens against a state, or school system about the removal of a book and/or the refusal to buy a book. Each of these cases has something to do with the First Amendment.
In the United States, public schools and public libraries are places where censorship issues can be found daily. Author Lee Burress writes that there are twelve reasons for the increase in censorship in the past 50 years. One major reason for the increase in censorship is that the literature curriculum for the schools has changed over the years. Before 1950, schools did not have the access to books that they do now. These schools did not have school libraries, and they certainly did not have school librarians. These schools also were influenced mainly by British authors. By 1940, the American school literature curriculums began to increase in size with the writings of American authors. These numbers steadily increased over the years which in turn gave the schools more material from which to study. Another reason for the increase in censorship is what Burress refers to as the Paperback Revolution. Around the 1950s, many book publishers began releasing inexpensive books in paperback. As a result of the cheap paperback books being sold, teachers could buy what the students wanted to read. This led teachers to buy books such as Catcher in the Rye which, ironically, ended up being one of the most challenged books of all time (Burress 1989, 73). One of the most important things a library can do to protect itself from potential book challenges like The Catcher in the Rye is to have a good selection policy in place. The American Library Association’s (ALA) website contains vast information for libraries that are struggling to write selection policies or are having problems with an overabundance of challenges. The ALA provides examples of basic selection criteria for selecting materials: educational relevance, reputation of author, and favorable reviews, for example. The website also includes recommended lists that should be consulted and procedures that should be taken from the beginning of the selection process to the final selection of material. The ALA website then gives procedures that should be followed if a challenge is made and an example complaint form that patrons may use if they have an issue with any given material.
Every year, the American Library Association publishes a list of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” and every year, many of the books that make up the list are of the fantasy and occult genre. Steven Otfinoski writes that while children and young adults see wonder and magic in these types of books, many adults see witchcraft, and Satan. He goes on to say that some adults even link witchcraft to destructive feminist practices. Specifically, Christian leader Pat Robertson says, “It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft and become lesbians.” There are adults, Pat Robertson included, that believe these types of books are trying to indoctrinate their children into the occult. As a result of this, many adults directly link these books with witchcraft. In the Bible, Deut. 18:10-12 has this to say about witchcraft:
There shall not be found among you any one that market his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that suet divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.
Amanda Cockrell (2006) writes that another reason for the recent increase in occult challenges is a direct result of our society’s focus changing from sex to the occult. In the 1980s and earlier, most book challenges were about sexuality, and foul language. To make matters worse, the differences in what the definition of fantasy is differs extremely from one group to another. What one group might look at as silly fun, another group looks at as serious business. For the parents that take fantasy seriously, they restrict their children from having and using their imaginations. Taylor and Carlson found that not only were parents very worried about their children having imaginary friends, they were quite negative when talking about their children using their imaginations for play. This was a direct contrast from most of the middle class American parents that were spoken to as well, who saw fantasy play as a way for children to learn to get along well with others and see someone else’s perspective on life (Taylor and Carlson 2000, 247). Most of the fundamentalist Christian parents that were spoken to by the authors connected fantasy play with deceit that would eventually lead the child to become a habitual liar. This could explain why many parents do not allow their children to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (Taylor and Carlson 2000, 251-252).
Another major issue among religious groups is that in the past few years, the fantasy/occult genre has exploded in popularity. There are a few books in the occult genre that have been challenged for years, and will most likely be challenged for years to come. Most of the books that are challenged in this genre have a main theme: witchcraft. J.K. Rowling wrote a series of books about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. While these books are loved throughout the world by many children and adults, they were the catalyst for book challenges in the fantasy/occult genre. Movies have been made about the books, a theme park has been built in honor of the series, and best of all the books are known to have instilled a life-long love of reading in millions of children around the world. In this series, Harry Potter goes to wizard school and learns how to cast spells, fly on a broomstick, create potions out of herbs, and much more. What some people do not realize is that Harry also encounters good and evil, right and wrong, and one of the most significant themes in the series - love. When the first novel was published in 1997, parents and adults without children began demanding that these books be banned and taken off library and bookstore shelves. According to Steven Otfinoski (2009), the main reason for this can be summed up in one sentence, which comes from a Michigan challenge in 2000: “The books are based on sorcery, which is an abomination of the Lord” (108). There are other reasons people want the book banned: death, hate, lack of respect, lying, cheating, and stealing. Even it seems like most of the challenges come from conservative Christians, they are not the only group to challenge the books. The United Arab Emirates banned Harry Potter series in 2001 because they did not uphold Islamic and Arab values (Otfinoski 2009, 108-109).
While religious reasons are a large part of this genre’s censorship problems, there are other reasons that parents worry about their children are reading. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels hold the number one spot on the American Library Association’s “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” These books are made up of scary stories that are taken from urban legends and folktales (Otfinoski 2009, 82). The stories are made up of rhymes, songs and prose tales, and there are sections that divide the book such as contemporary folktales, traditional ghost tales, and chilling tales. Each story includes documentation as to where the story came from and the source of the tale (Forestall 1994, 159). Most stories are accompanied by an illustration, which in some cases is even more gruesome than the story itself. School officials and parents have long found these stories to be too scary for children (Otfinoski 2009, 82). That being said, many children love these stories. They are perfect for being read aloud during sleepovers and will surely keep children up at night. Here again, many of the challenges back in the 90s were brought forth by conservative Christians. In fact, one evangelical preacher said this about the stories: “You don’t put guns in kids’ hands, you don’t put alcohol in kids’ hands, you don’t put pornography in kids’ hands, and you don’t put this in their hands either…” (Otfinoski 2009, 83). Most times, parents and school officials are the only ones to challenge books, but Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was actually challenged by a fourth grade student as well. The student said that the books are too scary and might cause bad dreams. The student also said, “The books are more than gory and the stories aren’t anything the other kids need to read… I just would enjoy it if the books were off the school grounds” (Foerstel 1994, 160).
Another reason fantasy and occult books are challenged is due to New Ageism. This is a relatively small piece of the pie, but it has been brought up in numerous challenges in the past decade. One such book that brought up this challenge is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Ninety-five percent of people who challenge this book use the words, “New Age,” “occult,” “Satanism,” and “anti-Christian” (McClellan 2008, 120). Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary states that New Age is an “eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health.” Some parents have found A Wrinkle in Time to represent a New Age religion that would confuse children and promote anti-family, anti-Christian values. In response to a specific challenge of this nature, an El Paso, Texas, school board review pointed out that at the time this book was written, the idea of New Age religion had not even been conceived (McClellan 2008, 119).
Since the creation of books, their destruction has littered the world’s history. There will probably never be a time where everyone agrees with all ideas, and living in America gives us the right to question those ideas. While banning books should never be an option, and is usually not the result of a challenge, challenging books is part of our rights of free speech. In a video posted to YouTube on March 29th, 2010 in response to a question about free speech and the title of his new book, author Philip Pullman said:
Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or sold, or bought or read. That’s all I have to say on that subject.
The reasons for challenges to books are many, and though each reason may seem strange to some, each challenger against a book and each advocate for a book should be met with the respect that the First Amendment of the Constitution gives to citizens of the United States of America.
American Library Association. “Library Bill of Rights.” Accessed April 27, 2010. http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/index.cfm
American Library Association. “Workbook for Selection Policy Writing.” Accessed March 15, 2011. http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/challengeslibrarymaterials/essentialpreparation/workbookslctn/index.cfm
Baez, Fernando. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books from Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. Translated by Alfred MacAdam. New York: Atlas & Co, 2008.
Burress, Lee. Battle of the Books: Literary Censorship in the Public Schools, 1950-1985. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1989.
Cockrell, Amanda. “Harry Potter and the Witch Hunters: A Social Context for Attacks on Harry Potter.” The Journal of American Culture 29 (March 2006): 24-30.
Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the U.S.A. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.
McClellan, Marilyn. Madeleine L’Engle: Banned, Challenged, and Censored. Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 2008.
Otfinoski, Steven. Our Freedom to Read: Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Taylor, Marjorie, and Stephanie M. Carlson. “The Influence of Religious Beliefs on Parental Attitudes about Children’s Fantasy Behavior.” In Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific, and Religious Thinking in Children, edited by Karl S. Rosengren, Carl N. Johnson, and Paul L. Harris, 247-268. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, YouTube video, 1:25, posted by canongatebooks, March 29 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQ3VcbAfd4w