What do Maya Angelou, Maurice Sendak, Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Isabel Allende, John Steinbeck and William Golding have in common? Aside, of course, from the fact that several books authored by members of this list made the cut for January Magazine's Best of the Century late last year, what else might connect them?

They are all authors, of course. All deeply talented and with large followings. Other than that, the connection is tough to see: some are alive, some are dead. They represent both genders, several races and all genres. It's tough to imagine that the thing that connects this list of esteemed authors is the fact that, at some time in the last 10 years, one or more of their works have been "challenged" in the United States.

The American Library Association (ALA) defines a challenge, "as a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school about a book's content or appropriateness."

While the ALA goes on to say that those that challenge reading material most often have the very best intentions, the reality of just who is making these challenges is surprising... and not a little bit frightening.

Over the past decade, 5718 challenges to library materials have been reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the ALA. While this doesn't sound like a huge number, Beverly Becker, the office's associate director says that, "Research shows that reported challenges represent only 20 to 25 per cent of all challenges made. The fact that every challenge is an attempt to make ideas inaccessible to their intended audience is even more troubling than the numbers."

During the 1990s, 71 per cent of all of the challenges related to material in schools and school libraries. A further 26 per cent related to materials in public libraries. Of these challenges, a whopping 60 per cent were made by parents, while 16 per cent were made by library patrons.

Judy Blume is a bestselling author of children's books, a vocal literary activist and has had more books challenged over the last decade than any other author. When January Magazine interviewed her in 1998, she spoke at length on the topic of censorship: something that has been one of Blume's special challenges throughout her long career.

"It's about fear," Blume said. "It's about control. And fear is contagious. I don't know why people think that if only they can control what their children read they can control their children's minds. It doesn't work that way. It's as if, if it's in a book it gives you permission. They're afraid that their kids will read about it and then it'll happen to their kids or their kids will do it. It doesn't work that way at all in real life. Reading about it can satisfy your curiosity so you say, 'No way. I'm not getting into that.'"

Blume says that, unlike earlier decades, the problem is no longer isolated to the political and religious right. "The left wants to get into the act. The PC folks want to get into the act. It's crazy. You can't give in to any of the censors. I don't care where they're coming from. Because we'll have nothing then."

While it's not difficult to understand why some books are called into question -- The Anarchist Cookbook, for instance. Long used as a handbook for... well... anarchy -- the problem is with how censorship can snowball. Censorship can be an insidious and almost viral thing. As Blume says, "Something will be offensive to someone in every book, so you've got to fight it." In other words, if something gets removed from a library shelf at your behest, you'd best be prepared for other books -- quite possibly books you approve of and enjoy -- to be removed as well.

While most thinking people these days agree that racist and hate literature is evil, what if the only people who have a vote in a community are those that promote racism and hate? Think about how that might work in your own life: what it might mean. No matter what side of the political fence you straddle, it's likely easy to point to a book that you think would be better for children not to read. If you can act on that and simply make the book disappear, what's to stop some other well-meaning person -- whose views are directly opposite your own -- make your favorite books disappear? After a while, as Blume suggests, we would be sitting in libraries with empty shelves with minds crippled with a lack of prisms through which to view the world.

That's not to say that you can't fight the good fight for your children. You can and should: but it really needs to begin at home. It's a parent's responsibility and privilege to impart values and morals to their children from a very early age. Since you'll never be able to control everything your child is exposed to, it only makes sense to work with the things you can affect. Educate your offspring with regard to the things that you perceive will be dangerous to them. Bring them gently to the point where they'll make the right decisions when faced with the things they'll need to decide. While it might seem easier to just make all of the evil books disappear, in the long run, it really isn't. You won't always be able to be clearing shelves for your children, but the values you impart will last a lifetime.

According to the ALA's Becker, "sexually explicit" is the thing most often cited for asking that a book be pulled from a library or school. Books that fall into this category include acknowledged modern masterpieces such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale; The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.

"Offensive Language" was the second most popular reason for requesting a book be given the boot. Challenged offenders here include the aforementioned The Color Purple and Snow Falling on Cedars as well as John Steinbeck's oft-maligned Of Mice and Men.

Other reasons given for challenges included "unsuited to age group," "occult theme or promoting the occult or Satanism," (J.K. Rowling's series of Harry Potter books were challenged for this reason), "violent," "homosexual theme or promoting homosexuality," "promoting a religious viewpoint," "nudity," "racism," "sex education" and "anti-family."

Ann K. Symons, a former president of the ALA, says that, "Ideas can only flourish -- and democracy survive -- if the right of everyone to choose for themselves what they wish to read, hear and view is guaranteed."

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, agrees. "Book banning and challenging has a domino effect. If we stand by quietly and let the first book come off the shelf, we run the risk they all will come tumbling down."

Banned Books Week runs from September 23rd to 30th. The ALA is encouraging all who will listen to, "Fish in the River of Knowledge: Celebrate Your Freedom to Read." The event is being supported by many book stores, libraries and, of course, by the ALA itself.

I can't think of a nicer way to celebrate Banned Books Week than by running out and reading a banned book. That would amount to thumbing your nose at censorship. Literally. | September 2000

The American Library Association's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999 *

  1. Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz
  2. Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  4. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  7. Forever by Judy Blume
  8. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  9. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  11. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  12. My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
  13. It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
  14. Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  15. Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine
  16. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
  17. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  18. Sex by Madonna
  19. Earth's Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
  20. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
  21. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
  22. The Witches by Roald Dahl
  23. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  24. The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
  25. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
  26. The Goats by Brock Cole
  27. The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard
  28. Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
  29. Final Exit by Derek Humphry
  30. Blubber by Judy Blume
  31. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
  32. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
  33. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  34. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  35. What's Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
  36. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
  37. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  38. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  39. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
  40. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  41. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
  42. Deenie by Judy Blume
  43. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  44. Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden
  45. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  46. The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
  47. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
  48. Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
  49. Cujo by Stephen King
  50. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  51. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
  52. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
  53. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  54. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  55. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
  56. Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
  57. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
  58. What's Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
  59. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
  60. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  61. Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
  62. Crazy Lady by Jane Conly
  63. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
  64. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
  65. Fade by Robert Cormier
  66. Guess What? by Mem Fox
  67. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  68. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  69. Native Son by Richard Wright
  70. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Fantasies by Nancy Friday
  71. Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
  72. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
  73. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
  74. Jack by A.M. Homes
  75. Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
  76. Family Secrets by Norma Klein
  77. Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole
  78. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
  79. Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
  80. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
  81. Carrie by Stephen King
  82. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  83. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  84. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  85. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
  86. Private Parts by Howard Stern
  87. Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford
  88. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
  89. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
  90. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
  91. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  92. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
  93. Sex Education by Jenny Davis
  94. Jumper by Steven Gould
  95. Christine by Stephen King
  96. The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
  97. That Was Then, This is Now by S.E. Hinton
  98. Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
  99. The Wish Giver by Bill Brittain
  100. Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

* Out of 5,718 challenges reported to or recorded by the Office for Intellectual Freedom, as compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom does not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges. Research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five which go unreported.

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.