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Challenges to library books on the rise

‘The Chocolate War’ topped list of questioned titles
/ Source: The Associated Press

Attempts to have library books removed from shelves increased by more than 20 percent in 2004 over the previous year, according to a new survey by the American Library Association.

Three books with gay themes, including Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” were among the works most criticized.

“It all stems from a fearfulness of well-meaning people,” says Michael Gorman, president of the library association. “We believe in parental responsibility, and that you should take care of what your children are reading. But it’s not your responsibility to tell a whole class of kids what they should read.”

The number of books challenged last year jumped to 547, compared to 458 in 2003, with the library association estimating four to five unreported cases for each one documented. According to the ALA, a challenge is “a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.”

National organizations such as the American Family Association have been involved with library challenges, but far more complaints come from individual parents and patrons, according to the ALA.

The ALA study was to be released Friday in anticipation of the 25th annual Banned Books Week, which runs Sept. 24 to Oct. 1 and is co-sponsored by the ALA, the American Booksellers Association and others. Gorman acknowledged that few books are actually banned, adding that Banned Books Week is a “catchy name.”

Language, violence, racism among issuesRobert Cormier’s classic “The Chocolate War” topped the 2004 list of challenged books, cited for sexual content, violence and language. It was followed by Walter Myers’ “Fallen Angels,” a young adult novel set in Harlem and Vietnam and criticized for racism, language and violence.

No. 3, Michael Bellesiles’ “Arming America,” has been widely disputed, even by its original publisher. First released in 2000, the book challenges the idea that the United States has always been a gun-oriented culture and was awarded the Bancroft Prize for history. But questions about Bellesiles’ scholarship led publisher Alfred A. Knopf to drop the book and Bancroft officials to withdraw the prize.

“If you’re a freedom-to-read person, pulling a book like that one is not that different from any book that might have fake scholarship,” Gorman says. “No matter how wrong a book might be, people should have access to it. It’s a slippery slope once you start removing books like that.”

Also high on the ALA list were Angelou’s memoir and two other books with gay content, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, and “King & King,” by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland.

The numbers for 2004 were the highest since 2000, but still well below the peak from a decade ago, when more than 700 books were challenged.

“A lot of people were worried that challenges would go up under President Bush, but the highest numbers were during the Clinton administration,” Gorman says. “I think that came from resentment among conservatives that Bill Clinton was president. You had the whole thing about gays in the military. You had people who believed that somehow Clinton was not a legitimate president.”

Gorman said the majority of challenges happen at school libraries, although a recent incident involved the general public branches in Denver. Prompted by complaints of pornographic and violent content, the Denver system canceled its subscription to four Spanish-language adult comic books.

“It’s a perpetual problem, and it attacks fundamental American liberties — the attempt to impose one’s own positions on society as a whole,” Gorman says.