Google+ Reading Teen: The "Banning" of Young Adult Books ~ Guest Post

Friday, May 7, 2010

The "Banning" of Young Adult Books ~ Guest Post

Today we are privileged to have a guest post from Author and fellow blogger Susan Kaye Quinn.  

"I'm an at-home-mom, environmental engineer, rocket scientist, writer and elected official. And I tap dance. Not really that last part - that would be crazy. I'm getting ready to query BYRNE RISK, a middle grade science fiction novel, and am digging my way through the second draft of OPEN MINDS, a young adult paranormal story (no vampires!)."

Susan's blog Ink Spells focuses on books for 8-12 year olds, but today she's talking to us about her thoughts on book "banning."

As a parent and school board member (as well as a writer), I have given this issue a great deal of thought.

What is a “banned” book?

The term "banning" is used very loosely in the U.S. to mean a book that has been removed from the shelves of a school or public library due to objections from the public. But is a book that is freely available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble truly "banned?" In the U.S., our First Amendment protects writers, and rightly allows them to write whatever they wish without fear of imprisonment, or government intervention preventing the publication and sale of their works. For a true sense of what it means to live in a country that bans books, please see 
, where Liu Xiaobo has been jailed for 11 years for writing about human rights and democracy, or Iranwhere Shahrnush Parsipur was jailed multiple times, including two jail sentences for writing a novel with frank discussions of female sexuality. Let us not diminish the brave work of these writers by conflating their book banning experience with a book being removed from the children’s section of the library, especially when that “banned” book is freely available from the bookstore, and the writer is more likely to see an increase in sales from the notoriety of their “banned” works than suffer in any way. This is why I will use “banned” in quotes to refer to book objections in the U.S.

What books get “banned?”

In the U.S.,
the vast majority of "banned" books are parents objecting to inappropriate material for children in public schools and libraries
. No one is trying to keep salacious material out of the adult section of the library, because no one cares about books when we are talking about adults. It’s only when the children are involved that people get concerned, and rightly so. This sort of “petitioning the government for redress” happens all the time on other issues, where the public holds their government accountable for how they run their public schools and libraries. For all the hue and cry that accompanies “banned” books, it is also important to realize that 90% of the time an objection occurs, the book is not permanently removed from the classroom or library. Usually some compromise that is satisfactory to all parties involved can be found, like restricting access via parental permission.

Community Values

School classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries are all supported by tax dollars. I believe that means that these institutions should generally reflect the community values of the taxpayers that support them. These institutions are governed by elected boards, which strictly speaking means that they are accountable to voters, but I think they should represent the taxpaying community as a whole, since only a small subset of the taxpayers actually come out to vote. Almost everyone in the community pays taxes, even non-property owners, since taxes are factored into their rent.

Librarians and teachers have a tough job stocking their shelves with books they believe the public wants with the limited budget they have, and part of that weighing decision should include community's values, as best they can discern it. A good hint that the community does not like certain sexually explicit books available for teens (or younger) would be parents filing complaints. The library board could respect the wishes of these objectors and pull a book from the teen section of the library, or reach some kind of compromise where the books are available for checkout only with parental consent. If the library board believes the objecting parents are a vocal minority that does not represent the rest of the community, they can refuse to pull the book. If they are wrong, and these parents do represent the majority community values, then community can (and should) choose to vote out these publicly elected officials at the next election.

This is how our democratic process works.

This also means that a book that may cause objections in Alabama, may not even be cause for notice in NYC. This is fine, because the residents of NYC should not be able to dictate how the public libraries in Alabama are run, and vice versa. Meanwhile, even in the remote case that a book is pulled from the library altogether, it is still freely available in bookstores and on-line, so that the citizens of Alabama have free access to that book, just not at taxpayer expense.

What about Constitutionally protected minority rights like free speech?

Our country is a democracy, which means our public institutions are governed by the vote of the majority, but we also have a Constitution which protects the rights of the minority. If a public board violates minority rights (say, denies a person a library card based on race or some other protected class), then they can (and should) be sued to protect the rights of that person. The First Amendment protects the written word as a form of free speech, and writers have an absolute right to write whatever they wish, and I will defend that to the last. But they don’t have a constitutional right to be published by a publishing company, or have a bookstore carry their books, or have a library stock their books. If they did, well, the publishing world would look very different than it does today!

Minority rights (like freedom of speech) should not be abridged, but there is no free speech right to have objectionable material in the children’s section of the library. Books don’t have constitutional rights, people do. And as long as the government is not interfering with the publication and sale of an author’s work, there is no violation of free speech.

Neither does an individual who is not the author have a “free speech” right to demand that a public library carry a particular book. If the majority of citizens in a community want to restrict objectionable material to parental-permission-only checkout, or removing it from the library altogether, the minority in that community does not have the right to demand that the book remain in the library at public expense. Even if a book is not carried in a library, that does not mean that one set of parents has dictated what another set of parents can give their children to read – all parents are free to give their children whatever books they wish. But the minority does not have the right to demand that the majority pay for a book and put it in a public institution accessible to children, when the majority believes that book is inappropriate for children. 

Can’t we all just get along?

With all the heated talk of free speech and sexually explicit books and protecting children, it is no wonder that passions are roused in debates about “banning” books in public schools and libraries. I wish we could take much of that passion to the real free speech battles that are being waged around the world, in support of those writers whose stance against oppression has earned them jail sentences, or worse. In the U.S., the truth is that very few books are the source of objections, and even those objections often do not result in books being removed from library or school shelves. Often the parties involved can find a mutually satisfactory solution that protects children, respects the community’s wishes, and tries to get books into the hands of as many people as possible.

Whether a particular book is available at the library or only through the local bookstore, parents bear the ultimate responsibility for monitoring their children’s reading. I applaud Reading Teen for working to get information about the content of books into parents’ hands. Busy parents need easily accessible information to understand what content their children are exposed to, so they can guide and discuss and generally help children grow into responsible adults with their values intact. Parents should be the final arbiters of their own children’s reading, as they are with any aspect of parenting.

And that is a minority right I will also defend to the last.

p.s. I hope it is obvious that all of the above is my stated opinion, and mine alone. I am sure there are many who will disagree with some, or all, of what I have said, and I welcome an open debate on these important issues.

Thank you so much, Susan for your very insightful thoughts! 

 So, what do you think?  Do we use the term "banning" too loosely?  Should parents and the community get to decide what is in the children's section in our libraries? And don't forget to visit Susan on Ink Spells!   


  1. "children grow into responsible adults with their values intact."

    You mean, grow into responsible adults with their parent's values intact...

  2. Very good post! Susan, you make me want to take a writing course for dummies. Thank you for all the info. I will be posting more on this topic and on censorship of books. You know I want ratings, so I will continue on that course. I might even quote you from time to time. Haha. Be looking for my post soon. Again, great article. Hope to have you back soon.

  3. "Parents should be the final arbiters of their own children’s reading, as they are with any aspect of parenting."

    I love that line by the way!!! NICE!

  4. @Sara I think every parent wants to impart their values to their children, and have a right to do so. And naturally different parents have different values. Of course, every parent also knows (or should) that children are going to develop their own values along the way. Helping children do that, I believe, is one of the essential jobs of a parent.

  5. @Aaronswoman Thanks for the opportunity to guest post!


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