Originally published on Bookish.com, an editorially independent division of NetGalley.
It’s Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the right to read. Launched in 1982, Banned Books Week was a response to an increase in the number of books being challenged by groups and individuals. Here, we’ve rounded up the perspectives of thirteen authors—from Roxane Gay to Kurt Vonnegut—on challenged books, book banning, and censorship.
“I don’t believe that books, even bad books, corrupt us. Instead, I believe books challenge and interrogate. They give us windows into the lives of others and give us mirrors so that we can better see ourselves. And ultimately, if you have a worldview that can be undone by a novel, let me submit that the problem is not with the novel.” —John Green, “On the Banning of Looking for Alaska“
“To the administrators I would say: Find your brain again. Stop lying, stop being hypocritical, and trust the young people. Read the book first and don’t just be shocked by one picture [from Persepolis]. Read it first, and then, if you really are shocked, don’t teach it. But I’m sure these people didn’t even read it. I would say to the children that I trust them—and I really trust that they will make a better world. I think they are very intelligent, and I really believe in young people.” —Marjane Satrapi, interview with SocialistWorker.org
“I have extensive experience with having my books challenged and banned. The thing is, when they ban or challenge a book, it instantly makes it prime reading material for that community. You want to guarantee every kid in a school reads the book? Ban it from a school. So I actually appreciate it. These folks would gladly have a nationwide effort to ban certain books. They would gladly control everything that anybody can read. So these small battles are fought so that they don’t gain power to fight that larger war of controlling all of literature, which is what they want to do.” —Sherman Alexie, “Book Banning and Censorship”
“This morning I received an email that was, essentially a gesture of censorship. It was a message predicated on the assumption that I came here to corrupt young minds with an agenda. As I mulled it over I wondered how desperately fragile a faith must be if it cannot withstand critical engagement or diverse points of view. Generally at events like [university visits], I read a few essays and the audience and I have a fun, engaging conversation about social justice and popular culture. I do not consider it my responsibility to convert you to my way of thinking or to malign your way of thinking should we hold different points of view. Instead, it is my responsibility to encourage you to question, to think, critically about your beliefs and what they mean for this world we share and the people with whom we share this world. I offer, I hope, a small act of faith.” —Roxane Gay, “Acts of Faith”
“People often ask me how I’d want to respond to those critics who would rather see my books pulled from shelves than handed to young readers. I do have an answer, and it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person. Some grown-ups are not amused by the kinds of things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp those things out.” —Dav Pilkey, “What It’s Like to Top Banned Book Lists Around the World”
“Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy. No student is forced to read [The House of the Spirits]. Teachers like to teach it because they believe it gives the students insights into Latin American literature, history, politics, social issues, and customs. They usually offer their students other options but most students choose the book, they enjoy it and often they write to me. Their comments prove that they have understood the story and they are curious to learn more. The novel seems to open their minds to other places and peoples in the world.” —Isabel Allende, letter to the North Carolina School Board
“Well, my first novel, The Kite Runner, has found itself as frequently appearing on the banned book list and frankly it’s something that’s always perplexed and puzzled me. I’m never quite sure what children are supposedly being protected from, because by now I have received thousands and thousands of letters from both middle school and high school students, children who read the book, either at home for themselves or in classrooms and I think, judging on the content of those letters, they’re far, far more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They get the context. They get the reasons why certain scenes are put in. They really understand that and they articulate that to me. I feel that, far more harmful to kids is so much of the pop culture that they’re exposed to through television, through the internet.”—Khaled Hosseini, speaking to the American Library Association
“[A] parent in Tennessee has confused gynecology with pornography and is trying to get my book banned from the Knoxville high school system… I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them. Because my book is many things: It’s a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more. But it is not anything resembling pornography.” —Rebecca Skloot, on Banned Books Week
“[T]hey never learn. The inevitable result of trying to ban something—book, film, play, pop song, whatever—is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone. Why don’t the censors realize this?” —Philip Pullman, on the futility and evil of banning books
“People died in the freedom struggle, and to think that having gained freedom at such a cost, it is now indeed threatened again. All writers are threatened by censorship, and censorship is the reality lurking behind the words ‘media tribunal.’ We are protesting against the institution of a media tribunal, which of course means ‘word police,’ not merely on our own behalf. Writing presupposes an interaction with readers. If the work and the freedom of the writer are in jeopardy, the freedom of every reader in South Africa is too. Our protest is an action undertaken by South Africans for all South Africans, committing ourselves to a demand for our free country: freedom of thought expressed, freedom of dialogue, freedom from fear of the truth about ourselves.” —Nadine Gordimer, interview with The Guardian
“Dear Mr. McCarthy… If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the [education] of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books—books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive. Again: You have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.” —Kurt Vonnegut, letter to the North Dakota School Board
“As far as I can tell from the talk of the people who are against the books, they somehow think that if we don’t write about sex, it will disappear, it will go away. They talk about preserving their seventeen-year-old and eighteen-year-old children, protecting them. Well, biology doesn’t protect them. They don’t need to read books.” —Alice Munro, CBC interview
“Maybe what’s upsetting about [Truth & Beauty] is that it’s true, it really happened. So let’s make a pact today not to read any nonfiction that could be upsetting. If stories about girls who are disfigured by cancer, humiliated by strangers, and turn to sex and drugs to escape from their enormous pain are too disgusting, too pornographic, then I have to tell you, friends, the Holocaust is off-limits. The Russian Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the war in Vietnam, the Crusades, all represent such staggering acts of human depravity and perversion that I could see the virtue of never looking at them at all.” —Ann Patchett, “The Love Between the Two Women is Not Normal”