Every year, the American Library Association (ALA) kicks off Banned Books Week—a week set aside to celebrate the freedom to read. Open access to information is essential for developing critical thinkers, from the classroom to the voting booth.
Banned Books Week started in 1982, when schools, libraries, and bookstores faced a sudden surge in challenged books. Now, it’s a week where readers can learn how to support freedom of expression and fight censorship.
This year, Banned Books Week takes place September 18th-24th. The theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” If you’d like to celebrate free reading and honor banned books, below are seven ways you can participate.
Read banned books!
The simplest way to honor Banned Books Week is by reading the books that cause so much ruckus.
Supporting banned books doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything the writer says. Fighting censorship simply means every writer should have the freedom to express their thoughts. By forming your own opinion about the text, you are supporting free expression.
But also, banned books are often very well-written stories! They can simply be fun to read.
If you like science fiction and fantasy, you’re in for a treat. SFF stories are common vehicles to explore difficult issues, so they always fill out the ALA’s challenged books list.
Dystopian readers can check out Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or George Orwell’s 1984. Lovers of otherworldly adventures can pick up Madeleine L’Engle’s endearing novel A Wrinkle in Time. Even young readers can join in with the magical worlds of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling or the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.
Host a banned books club
It’s always more fun to read a book with friends. After you decide which banned book you want to read first, research why it is so frequently challenged. Before reading, discuss the book’s controversy, and use that context to guide your read-through. Take note of how the author portrays the story’s controversial issues through literary devices like character, plot, language, and theme.
Close reading with friends can make it easier to dig into difficult text, especially if the story asks you to face challenging topics head-on. Plus, a fun argument over a book with people you trust can make it easier to discuss the book’s effectiveness in a public setting. But ultimately, wrestling over a book with friends can illuminate aspects of a story you might not have noticed on your own, giving you a more nuanced understanding of the book’s takeaways.
Participate in an event at your local library
Many libraries will host special events specifically for banned books week. Librarians often curate special reading lists and host fun after-school activities for families to learn more about why these books were banned and how to think critically as you read these stories. If you’re struggling to teach your kids about the importance of free reading, library events can be a great way to start the conversation in a hands-on, age-appropriate way.
Furthermore, it’s a great way to support your local library! Libraries are some of the biggest heroes when it comes to fighting censorship and supporting unrestricted reading. For one, libraries offer free educational resources to anyone who walks through their doors. Having a library card allows you to check out books to bring home, but you can always simply sit amongst the stacks with a book in hand too.
Libraries also have amazing interlibrary loan systems. If your local library doesn’t have a title you want, they can reach out to others to get you what you're looking for, no questions asked. You can potentially have the world’s catalogue of books at your fingertips!
Write a letter to your local school board
In the 1982 Supreme Court case Island Trees School District v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled that a school board can’t remove library books based on content alone. This violates students’ rights to receive information and ideas under the First Amendment’s free speech clause. However, people—often parents—still challenge what books can be brought into schools or taught in the classroom, and they usually bring the issue to the school board.
One helpful way to head off book bans is to promote the positive. Tell your local school boards, especially if you are a student or the parent of a student, that you support students’ right to unrestricted reading. Encourage schools to lean into difficult books to teach students the importance of critical thinking and the free exchange of ideas.
Read through the Banned & Challenged Books sections of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom
The Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) helps the ALA provide free access to library materials, no matter a book’s status. If you want to learn what the most challenged books of the year were, the OIF gathers reports from libraries and schools across the United States to compile lists of banned titles.
The OIF explains how parents’ good intentions can be made extreme through political polarization, and they offer helpful resources for librarians and teachers to discuss freedom of expression with them. The OIF’s website offers consulting services for how to handle a book challenge in your local library or school. Experts from the OIF can visit communities to teach about intellectual freedom, privacy, First Amendment rights, and more as well.
Read up on the history of book censorship
To understand the importance of free reading, it’s helpful to learn about the historical context of book banning in the United States and abroad. Banned Books Week events at local libraries can offer more history during their festivities, and librarians are always great resources to help you find reputable resources to research on your own too.
Book banning is the most widespread form of censorship in the United States, often for political and religious reasons, and it has a troubling history in other places in the world too. During the Shoah, Hitler famously burned books by Jewish writers along with communist, pacifist, or other ideologies opposed to Nazism.
More recently, the Iranian government declared a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie. The decree has led to firebombings of bookstores and numerous assassination attempts against Rushdie.
Adapt a banned book to another medium
Translating a book to another medium (like film, a television series, or a graphic novel) requires thoughtfulness. You must hold a deep understanding for the text’s themes with a commitment to craft, to reveal those themes through visuals and action. For artists, adapting a banned book to another medium can be a creative way to show new audiences why the book is important. And it doesn’t require big speeches or debates. Adaptation can allow the text to reveal new aspects about itself.
Adaptation is also a great way to keep the story alive. Many banned books have had successful film adaptations which made them household names, like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Others have been recognized with prestigious honors, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the film adaptation of which earned three Academy Awards. Other stories, like Fahrenheit 451, have had beautiful graphic novel adaptations which introduced the story to new audiences. By adapting banned books, artists support free expression by practicing it themselves.