Banned Books Draw Closer Look - Register Guard

Banned books draw closer look | Readings at local libraries focus attention on literary works that have been challenged in the past
By Matt Cooper

The Register-Guard

Appeared in print: Sunday, Sep 27, 2009

For 10-year-old Ashley Helwig of Eugene, the Fat Lady is just one more intriguing character in the wildly popular Harry Potter books.

But this character is a witch, and thus an example of the kind of controversial content that has drawn more concern to the Potter books than perhaps any other series in the 21st century, librarians say.

Helwig read aloud from a Potter book, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” for a small gathering Saturday at the Eugene Public Library. She was lending her voice to “Banned Books Week 2009,” a national event held by the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union to defend freedom of speech through the celebration of books that have been banned or challenged due to content.

Some believe inaccurately that the government is responsible for most banned books, according to ACLU of Oregon.

More often it’s concerned parents and other citizens who challenge material and want it removed from libraries and bookstores.

But the ability to create — whether it’s art or the written word — must be protected “from folks in the community who say, ‘You can’t have that in our public libraries or public schools,’ ” said ACLU field organizer Claire Syrett.

Oregon public libraries generally experience fewer challenges to books than do those in the South and Midwest, where there have been “aggressive” legislative attempts to ban material or make it unavailable to children, said Candace Morgan of the Oregon Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Much of the material deemed inappropriate is sexual in theme.

Libraries occasionally remove a book that has been challenged if it doesn’t match the library’s audience and other criteria. That’s an important consideration, Morgan said, because the same First Amendment that protects freedom of speech also gives citizens the right to “grieve” or appeal actions by the government, including public libraries.

Such appeals haven’t happened much at the Eugene Public Library, where staff members say they can’t recall the last time material was banned or formally challenged.

Parents are occasionally concerned with whether age-specific material is appropriately classified, said library Director Connie Bennett. She likens the library to a banquet table with dishes of varying “spiciness,” and said parents must make selections for their children.

“It is the parents’ responsibility to say, ‘This may be a little spicy for you right now,’” Bennett said. “But we wouldn’t want to take it off the table for everyone else.”

The Potter books, written by J.K. Rowling, top the American Library Association’s “Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century,” mainly because of concerns about references to the occult and wizardry.

In 2000, a Bend school district retained the series after it was challenged for concerns “that the book would lead children to hatred and rebellion,” the ACLU said.

Books are most commonly challenged for being sexually explicit or for offensive language, though other reasons cited include “anti-family,” “homosexuality” and “religious viewpoint.” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” written by favorite son Ken Kesey, has been challenged for decades for everything from promoting “secular humanism” to pornography, the ACLU said.

But given each citizen’s personal preferences, Gilbert Avery speculated that only government could establish an acceptable limit on content — and that prospect worried him even more.

“No government should have that power and authority,” said Avery, 78, who read Saturday from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” “If we develop a (limit) on what’s acceptable, nobody can do anything new.”



Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part‑Time Indian.” Challenged at Crook County High School in Prineville in December 2008 for offensive language and discussion of masturbation. Removed from ninth-grade English classes but returned to the library.

Jean Auel, “Clan of the Cave Bear.” Challenged at Cascade Middle School library in Eugene in 1992 by a parent because of a rape scene and other sexual content. Removed.

Rita Crosby, “Help the Forest.” Removed from first-grade classes in the Grants Pass School District this year following parent complaints about the way loggers are portrayed. Replaced with a revised edition.

Mercer Mayer, “A Special Trick.” Challenged at Coburg Elementary School in 1991 for alleged satanic art. Retained.

Leslea Newman, “Heather Has Two Mommies.” Challenged at the Cottage Grove Lane County Head Start Center in 1994. Removed.

Jane O’Connor, “Just Good Friends.” Challenged at Eugene’s Jefferson Middle School in 1987 for sexual references. Removed.

Michael Willhoite, “Daddy’s Roommate,” about homosexuality and same-sex parenting. Challenged at the Lane County Head Start in Cottage Grove in 1994. Removed.