Forbidden Fiction 

Fifty years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel remains one of the most controversial books taught in American public schools—and with parents able to dam digital information streams with passwords and software, paper and ink may today be more of a threat to overly concerned parents than the Internet.

Later this month, the 29th annual Banned Books Week will begin. It's an awareness campaign created by the American Library Association (ALA) to promote intellectual freedom by drawing attention to "challenged" and banned books. The UA will be participating in this year's campaign with the university's second annual Banned Books Exhibit and read-out.

With 2010 bringing HB 2281, which is intended to abolish the Tucson School Unified District's ethnic-studies program, this year's Banned Books Week is especially relevant.

"We're going to have a case dedicated to that topic," said Rebecca Blakiston, an instructional services librarian at the UA. "It's going to be curated by REFORMA (an association that promotes library and information services in the Latino and Spanish-speaking communities), and it will explore ethnic studies and the censorship issues surrounding that. It will be an interesting local spin on our exhibit this year."

REFORMA is an affiliate of ALA and has an active role in the development of Spanish-language books and services in libraries throughout the nation, to match the needs of the growing Latino population.

Blakiston said that she hopes the UA's Banned Books Week events will inspire people to have open discussions on these local topics.

While fairly recent books—like 2007's The Peaceful Pill Handbook, a guide, of sorts, to committing suicide peacefully—still conjure up a good amount of exposure and controversy, the bottom line is that the First Amendment protects the flow of information in the United States. However, public schools are often the sites of battles over books, when parents challenge works for not coinciding with their political or moral beliefs.

Blakiston said homosexual and anti-family themes are common reasons for books to be challenged by parents—even though, according to Blakiston, these books often contain age-appropriate literary value.

"And Tango Makes Three is a book about two male penguins that adopt a baby penguin. ... It's geared toward pretty young kids, but it's a good way to address a situation that (a) kid may be going through in a nice way instead of having them go online and look up 'gay men' and see what they find," Blakiston said. "We need to have books like that; it's a great tool to help parents that are addressing these issues with their kids."

While Arizona is home to fewer book challenges than many other states, it still sees its share of assaults on literary freedom. In 2008, the Vail School District pulled author James Baldwin's book Another Country from an Advanced Placement literature class due to a parent's complaint that it was "written pornography." (See "Censored!" Currents, Oct. 2, 2008.)

On Thursday, Sept. 30, a read-out/speak-out will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the UA Main Library. Community readings of challenged books will be followed by a discussion. Panelists include a former director of the Pima County Public Library, who will be talking about specific local cases that took place during her employment, and a UA professor of LGBT studies whose curriculum has been challenged repeatedly.

The event's main goal is to celebrate the fact that, in a world where information is still highly censored, we enjoy democratic freedoms that allow us to read and explore different ideas. It will also serve as a reminder that historically, these freedoms have been infringed upon—and in order to prevent backslides like the incident in Vail, open discussions are necessary.

The Banned Books Exhibit will be opening in the UA Main Library on Saturday, Sept. 18, and will be on display during library hours through Thursday, Oct. 21. For more information regarding the exhibit and other Banned Books Week events, including the read-out/speak-out on Sept. 30, visit uaforyou.arizona.edu/activity/banned-books-exhibit, or call 307-2834.

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