Why We Want Parents to Try to Ban Books

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The American Library Association released its list of the "most challenged books of 2009," this week, and the results are dismaying.

Why should the list make book-lovers nervous? Not because it shows that classics like To Kill a Mockingbird (fourth on the list), The Catcher in the Rye (number six), and The Color Purple (number nine) are still under siege, even generations after they were first released. Not because one of the newer entries is a picture book about penguins that offends some parents because of its portrayal of same-sex animal marriage (And Tango Makes Three, number two). Not even because the number one most challenged text is a book called ttyl, which is written entirely in text message-speak, and therefore reveals that enough of America's youths are reading a book written entirely in text message-speak for parents to try to put a stop to it.

No, what's alarming is not that grown-ups are trying to prevent kids from reading about racism in World War II-era Alabama or gay penguins or Internet-obsessed teenagers. It's worrying that more parents aren't challenging these books. The ranking is based on just 460 challenges nationwide. Granted, the ALA says many challenges go unreported, and claims the 460 number represents just 25 percent of the total. Still, even accounting for unreported complaints, parents lodged fewer than 2,000 challenges last year, which averages out to under 40 per state. And the number of complaints is dropping—challenges were down 10 percent last year compared to 2008.

The books on the ALA list should make more than 2,000 parents nervous. In The Catcher in the Rye, a high school student orders a prostitute to the Manhattan hotel room where he's fled after being kicked out of boarding school. To Kill a Mockingbird engages with some of our society's most taboo subjects: race and rape. Even the Twilight series (number five on the list) is subversive in its own way, even apart from all the vampire and werewolf business that raises the dander of a certain kind of parent. It tells the story of a 17-year-old girl so consumed with love for her boyfriend that she'll sacrifice her education, family, and physical safety to be with him—not exactly the message parents want to send to their bright, independent, college-bound daughters.

Of course, we'd never want America's librarians to cave to parents' challenges. We don't want The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, or even ttyl and the Twilight series to be yanked from library shelves. But when parents complain about what their children read, it shows that books are doing their jobs: affecting young readers so much that they are transformed. It's scary to think of books being removed from libraries because they're controversial. But it's even scarier to think of a country where books are so irrelevant, parents don't even care enough to complain.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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