NEW YORK — Attempts to have library books removed from shelves increased by
more than 20% in 2004 over the previous year, according to a new survey by the
American Library Association.
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, frequently targeted in
previous years for a rape scene and for being perceived by some as “anti-white,”
was among the works most criticized last year.
“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
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 today in anticipation of the 24th
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
Robert 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 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