WASHINGTON – John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is on high school reading lists across the country. But the classic novel occasionally appears on another list as well – of books that some parents want pulled from shelves because of vulgar language, sexual content or some other reason.
Every year, public libraries and schools across the country collectively field hundreds of requests from parents, public officials and activists pressing for the removal of books they deem inappropriate. That includes literary classics, human sexuality manuals and, occasionally, even the dictionary, according to the American Library Association.
In Arizona, there have been only five requests since 2004, with none in Pima County.
The issue sparked renewed public interest during the presidential campaign because of reports that GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, had asked the librarian there about the process for banning books in 1996.
The American Library Association has logged more than 9,600 requests to remove books from library shelves, summer reading lists and school classrooms since 1990. The actual number is considerably higher, association officials say, because most challenges are handled quietly.
The number of cases in which a book was removed has declined over time, according to Judith Krug, director of the association’s office of intellectual freedom.
“The community is rising up and saying, ‘No, you are not going to remove these materials. We can make up our own minds,’ ” she said, “I give a lot of credit to the public.”
The annual list of book challenges compiled by the American Library Association is based on news accounts and reports from librarians. Association officials keep the vast majority of requests confidential.
Gannett News Service analyzed 272 publicly reported challenges compiled by the association from 2003 through March 2008 and found that:
• Challenges came from communities in 41 states, some from organized groups and others from parents and patrons. Most of the challenges – 222 – targeted books at a school.
• Sexual content was cited 144 times, making it by far the most common basis for a challenge. Vulgar language, racial themes, violent images and anti-Christian content also were mentioned often.
• In addition to Steinbeck, famous authors whose works have been challenged include Mark Twain (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), Maya Angelou (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”) and J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter books).
• Most challenged books stayed on the shelves. Of 176 different books challenged in cases that led to some resolution, 99 (56 percent) were retained and 65 were removed. Another 12 remained available but with restrictions, such as a requirement for parental permission.
Palin has said she was merely posing a “rhetorical” question when she asked the Wasilla librarian about circumstances that might justify banning a book, according to news reports. There’s no evidence any books were removed.
People who ask that books be removed from a library shelf or school reading list target titles that might seem harmless to others, Krug said.
In 1993, school officials in Churchill County, Nev., received complaints about “objectionable language” in the American Heritage Dictionary. The officials decided to keep the dictionary anyway. Most challenges focus on keeping certain books away from children.
Kathleen Subia of Chandler asked the local library to remove a book called, “Where Willy Went” after her 7-year-old daughter pulled it from a shelf in the children’s section. The book contains pictures explaining conception from the perspective of a sperm cell.
“It’s actually a great book if I was looking to explain to my children how people reproduce, but it forced me to have that conversation with my children when I wasn’t ready for it,” Subia said. “I thought the kids’ section was safe.”
Chandler’s library board decided to keep the book where it was.
In Maine, JoAn Karkos stole a book on human sexuality from the children’s section of libraries in Lewiston and Auburn and sent the libraries a check to cover the cost of the book, which she called “pornographic.”
“Lyrics have warnings. Movies have warnings. But our publicly funded libraries do not have warnings,” said Karkos, a 65-year-old retired credit union loan officer who was fined by a court.
Top 10 book ban requests
American Library Association officials say they know of 420 requests to remove books from schools and libraries in 2007. Here are the top 10, along with the reasons cited.
1. “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.
Reasons: anti-ethnic, sexism, homosexuality, anti-family, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group.
2. “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier .
Reasons: sexually explicit, offensive language, violence.
3. “Olive’s Ocean” by Kevin Henkes.
Reasons: sexually explicit, offensive language.
4. “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman.
Reasons: religious viewpoint.
5. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
6. “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker.
Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language.
7. “TTYL” by Lauren Myracle.
Reasons: sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuitable for age group.
8. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.
Reasons: sexually explicit.
9. “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris.
Reasons: sex education, sexually explicit.
10. “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky.
Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuitable for age group.
On the Web
For more information about the American Library Association, go to www.ala.org.