As I often do with any task, large or small, I asked my spouse for input and suggestions for this column. She had quite a novel idea: Examine the correlation between being an evil banned-book author and having the telltale sign of evil—a sinister moustache.1 With the help of Google and Wikipedia images, she combed the ALA’s lists of 100 most frequently banned or challenged books for the years 1990-1999 and 2000-2009 to find the answer (American Library Association, n.d.-a, n.d.-b). The results were hair-raising.
Result: If you want your book banned, DO NOT HAVE FACIAL HAIR (Here we assume it’s good to have a book “banned” because there’s no such thing as bad publicity).
If you MUST have facial hair, HAVE A BEARD and NOT A MOUSTACHE.
Roughly 80% of the authors on the lists from both decades do not have facial hair. Female authors were counted as having no facial hair (surprise?). Even the majority of male authors on the list do not have facial hair. Of those who do, beards consistently have the slight edge over moustaches. Most importantly, authors without facial hair are much more likely to have multiple books on the list.
It seems like beards and moustaches may not be the outgrowth of concentrated evil after all.
Here are the numbers (see Tables 1 and 2).
Authors in the List of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999
Authors in the List of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009
Part II: A Basic Human Right
If you’ve stayed with me for this long, maybe the above illustration has demonstrated the arbitrary nature of challenging or banning books and their authors. Readers, patrons, and students are often very surprised when they see which of their beloved and popular titles have been frequently challenged.
Here's one recent example from The Atlantic that reads like any of the other countless challenges that happen across the country.
On June 4, a district parent emailed board members and district officials “shocked and appalled” by the Blue Hen List, and [The Miseducation of] Cameron Post in particular. “We expected to see classics like Of Mice and Men or Lord Of The Flies,” the parent says. Instead, Cameron Post seemed to be “a roadmap or guide book on how to become a sexually active lesbian teen.” Board member Spencer Brittingham picked up Cameron Post to see for himself. The book stunned him. “I’ve been running the scenes in my head constantly,” he says (Kunzig, 2014).2
Let’s ignore the fact that this school board member just said that he was constantly running the scenes of a sexually active lesbian teen through his head because he was so stunned. Let’s focus instead on the heart of the issue—censorship of the written word—and leave this Delaware school board alone with their thoughts.
We should take this above example as a time to reflect on how often the classics mentioned above by the “shocked parent,” Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies, have been and continue to be challenged because of language and violence. It further shows how one person’s taste and preference is a large part of what is challenged. We could also take this example as a demonstration of our collective acceptance of violence and violent themes over love and the struggles of navigating the complex continuum of gender and human sexuality.
When books are challenged, banned, censored, or access to them is controlled for unnecessary reasons, we violate both a core tenet of a free and democratic society and a basic human right: the freedom of expression (of ideas) and the right to freely send and receive information. Together, these two ideas form one cohesive principle. While our own Bill of Rights only focuses on the freedom of expression in the First Amendment, the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, n.d.) outlines that access to information is a basic human right, and must always accompany the freedom of expression.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
We typically take human rights for granted in America, unless an egregious violation unfolds in the news. Unfortunately, as a society, we don’t tend to see censorship as one of those egregious violations. We dismiss the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because of our own tradition of upholding democratic values. However, I believe that if we frame the discussion in terms of this human right to freely “receive and impart information,” we might have an even stronger foothold to combat censorship. Like all other inalienable rights, access to information is often infringed, challenged, dismissed, limited, and denied.
Finally, I leave you with two points to keep in mind and to help plan for future action:
Remember that the right to information and the freedom to read goes well beyond books and the books on our shelves.
Take Banned Books Week as a time to review collection development policies to make sure there are mechanisms in place that eliminate self-censoring of our collections.
American Library Association. (n.d.-a). 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990-1999. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/bbooks/100-most-frequently-challenged-books-1990%E2%80%931999
American Library Association. (n.d.-b). Top 100 banned/challenged books: 2000-2009. Retrieved from
Delaware Division of Libraries. (2014). Blue Hen Book Award: 2015 Blue Hen Book Award nominated books. Retrieved from http://guides.lib.de.us/bluehen
Kunzig, R. (2014, September 5). Who should decide what high school kids are allowed to read? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/09/who-should-decide-what-high-school-kids-read/379609/?google_editors_picks=true
United Nations. (n.d.). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
1When referencing an evil villain, the British spelling is strongly preferred.
2“The Blue Hen Book Award is a children’s choice award sponsored by the Youth Services Division of the Delaware Library Association. The award encourages literacy and library use by children and teens” (Delaware Division of Libraries, 2014).
Anthony H. Prince, Jr, is TLA Intellectual Freedom Committee Co-Chair, TLA Newsletter Editor, and Cataloging Manager at Tennessee State University. He is greatly appreciative of his spouse for her assistance in researching part I of this article. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.