Sonya Green, Program Coordinator, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Ramona Harten, Director, Cheshire Public Library
Craig Hotchkiss, Coordinator of Education, Mark Twain House & Museum
Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, has been banned since it was first published in 1852, but for different reasons over the years: too political; too offensive; too vulgar. Stowe herself sought to address those who challenged the work in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853) but the controversy continues today. So, who decides what we can read and why? What is offensive to one person may not be to another, but once a book is banned, the opportunity for individuals to decide for themselves vanishes.
Craig Hotchkiss deals with challenges surrounding Twain's Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, which has also been banned since first published. Racial epithets and the characterization of Jim are the leading reasons that schools put it on the banned list today. Actively working with schools, Hotchkiss provides teachers with strategies to discuss the book in class and how to recognize if students are ready to handle the content.
Sonya Green stressed the necessity of safe places to have conversations around difficult subjects such as this. Using Stowe's words to emphasize the danger of denying access to material that may be viewed as challenging, Green reminded the group that while the truth is not always pretty, there is a real danger is denying its existence.
Ramona Harten noted that the vast majority of challenges comes from people wanting to protect children. 95% of these challenges are unsuccessful, but some succeed and the book is removed from circulation. There is no one particular type of book that is banned, or one particular type of person that challenges a book. Every piece of information is offensive to someone and Harten listed some recent titles to comes under scrutiny from Webster's Dictionary to Harry Potter.
While most people challenge a book out of a sincere concern, it is still motivated by an individual's opinion. If people are free and open to a variety of viewpoints and ideas, ultimately they will make the right decision and have the opportunity to choose for themselves what they read, or choose not to.
The group discussion focused on the danger of one person's opinion affecting what the majority could read or have access to. Different viewpoints were shared and while the group overall was opposed to the idea of banning it was noted that everyone had a flash point. Each of us views things differently and has something that we feel might not be good for others to be exposed to - fear of promoting hate, dangerous behavior, and providing platforms for criminals were mentioned as reasons some might consider challenging a book.
It was noted that the mere act of challenging or banning a book often increases interest in the book. Might this be a ploy for publishers to utilize, one participant wondered. Hotchkiss shared that Twain acknowledged those that challenged his works, thanking them for ensuing their success.
One member of the audience called attention to the fact that sometimes censorship affects what content is even published, noting that Texas, the biggest market for textbooks, controls the entire textbook market. If Texas won't buy it, then it won't be published. This impacts curriculum, limits viewpoints and denies some historic truths.
There is no definitive list of banned books in Connecticut. Decisions are made at the town level and libraries and schools differ in what they ban or challenge. There are resources and groups one can consult for assistance with reinstating a banned book or opposing a challenge. (See Information to Action list below) One member of the group said, the remedy to expressioni that is found distasteful is not suppression, but more speech and discussion.
Information to Action:
These action ideas were captured during the group discussion:
- There is no typical person that challenges books. All different types of people challenge for all different reasons.
- We all have the right to receive information. The 1st Amendment allows you to ban books and demand the right to choose what you read for yourself.
- Changing communities impacts library selections.
- Question textbooks. What will sell determines what people will write and publish.
- Create settings and environments where difficult subjects can be discussed. Create readiness.
- Monitor local situations. Pay attention and get involved.
- Join the Friends group at your local library.
- Get on your local library board.
- Vote - elected officials advocate on your behalf.
Additional resources for more information and ways YOU can take action:
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
American Civil Liberties Union
American Library Association
Banned Books Online exhibition
Cheshire Public Library
Controversial Banned Books
Freedom to Read Foundation
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Hartford Public Library
List of Banned Books by Governments
Mark Twain House and Museum
National Coalition Again Censorship