Oh, to be Banned in Alabama


Starting on September 25 and running to October 2, Banned Books Week shines a spotlight on the number of books that have been challenged and banned in libraries throughout America and around the world. It seems that any number of busybodies want to get their oar in on what our kids can or cannot read. The list of the top ten most challenged books in America in 2010 can be found here.

Now I can understand parents wanting to keep tabs on what their children are reading. That’s responsible parenting. But I start to draw the line when it comes to people saying that certain books should be removed from public and school libraries. Some complaints are understandable (questioning whether a certain book should be shelved in a certain area), but more often than not it seems that these complaints come from the whackadoodle ends of the political or religious spectrums. And some titles acquire infamy more by virtue of their popularity than by their actual content. For instance, I notice that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — much maligned for its “promotion” of witchcraft and “satanism” — has dropped off the list (even though it remains the most challenged book of this past decade) while Twilight debuts at number five.

Of course, challenging and banning a particular book can be counter-productive. It inevitably stirs up controversy, and people who wouldn’t normally have read the book before start in, just to see what all the fuss is about. Meg Cabot once said that she hoped that her books would be banned somewhere, as that was the ticket to fame and fortune. And then there was this quote from British author Terry Pratchett:

…an editor warned me that if I used the word ‘damn’ in Truckers in the US, I’d be banned in Alabama… …I begged and pleaded, because I WANTED to be banned in Alabama. But they took it out, while my real editor was on vacation. I sent them a fax: Darn you to Heck! Children’s book, remember. In theory, anyway. At risk from every smalltown prodnose.


Upon hearing that quote, Erin and I hit upon a perfect marketing strategy. We should get stickers — similar to the sort of shiny stickers that book publishers put on their covers upon winning the Newbery or the Governor General’s Award — proudly stating their book is “Banned in Alabama!” And we should place these on books which are, as noted, banned in Alabama. Maybe I pick on Alabama too much, but Terry Pratchett said it first, so blame him. Also, there’s a wonderful assonance in the phrase. Baaaned in Aaaalabaaama. It just rolls off the tongue.

So, on Twitter today, I asked a few authors and others whether they aspired to have their books be banned in Alabama, and what they could do to bring this about. Some responses could not be reprinted on this blog, unfortunately (I’d have asked them to make it family friendly, but I guess that sort of defeats the purpose), and here’s a sample of what I got:

Sarah Prineas: “I aspire to be banned in Alabama by running around naked while singing the national anthem!! (or did you mean my books?)”

Sandra Love: “I would have cows with … cover your eyes James… udders. Apologies to all Alabamians (?) not so easily frightened.

Stephen John Barringer: Every character would be a maniacal punster. That’ll get your book banned anywhere.

Other authors decided against playing along, saying they wanted as many sales in Alabama as possible, but neither Cynthia Leitich Smith nor Arthur Slade have had any problems with “prodnoses”, as Terry Pratchett calls them. I remember once Kenneth Oppel telling me that his Airborn had received complaints from some parents about the curse words some of his pirate characters used. The fact that the pirates murdered people garnered no complaints from anybody, but cursing? That was a more serious matter, clearly. Still, not enough to get banned in Alabama.

Putting all jokes aside, I’m not looking to get banned in Alabama, or anywhere else for that matter. I do not write my stories to provoke. Cynthia said it best: “it’s not about taking a stand or being provocative. It’s about what rings true to my characters and their story.”

Looking back, I had few complaints about the books I wrote. The situation that Peter and Rosemary found themselves in in The Young City (posing as a married couple to share an apartment in 1884) raised few eyebrows, and was likely accepted as something two responsible teenagers would have to do considering the circumstances. Indeed, the only major complaint that I got was that they didn’t give into the urges, despite the risks of sex in that day and age. Looking ahead, I wonder what, if anything, might set certain readers off. Sex is alluded to in The Dream King’s Daughter (after all, how else could Aurora have been born), so maybe people could complain there. There’s nudity in Icarus Down; it’s in keeping with the demands of the story, but you never know with some people.

When some loonier individuals campaign against A Wrinkle in Time for mentioning Buddha in the same breath as Jesus, or against The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for promoting witchcraft, you just have to roll your eyes, sometimes. And roll out the stickers as badges of honour.

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