I’m glad you asked! As you may have noticed, this past week, from September 27th to October 3rd, the American Library Association and readers everywhere have been celebrating Banned Books Week. That means we’ve been taking this week to promote the importance of readers having access to all kinds of books and information. Censorship and banning books takes away readers’ rights to choose and think for themselves. But how do books get banned and what does it mean to be “banned”?
Book banning happens differently in different places. I am going to compare the book banning process in two countries: America (my home country) and China (the country I am currently living in) to illustrate two different meanings of “banned books.”
In America, when we talk about “banned books,” we usually really mean “challenged books.” A book becomes “challenged” when an individual or group attempts to get it removed from a library or school curriculum. If the challenge is successful, then the book has been “banned.” According to the ALA, the top three reasons for challenging books are sexual explicitness, offensive language, and unsuitability for the targeted age group. It is usually the parents of school children who end up challenging books, in the attempt to protect their children from what they deem to be inappropriate material. Some of the YA books that have been challenged this year include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (see the rest of the top 10 here).
In America, book-banning is very much a bottom-up process, with individual parents trying to get certain books removed from individual schools or libraries. In China, book-banning is a top-down process.
The Chinese version is perhaps more in line with what the word “banned” calls to mind. The Chinese central government has a Bureau in charge of book censorship called The General Administration of Press and Publication. All publishers in China must be licensed by this bureau. This gives the Chinese central government absolute power over who and what gets published in China. The type of books that get targeted tend to be criticisms of the government or its leaders, such as Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, or sexually explicit exposés of the increasingly sexually liberated young female population, such as Shanghai Baby by Zhou Weihui or Candy by Mian Mian. There are of course, many ways around these limitations, however. There are thousands of underground unlicensed publishing factories in China, and pirated books are the norm. People can also buy banned books from Hong Kong, which is not subject to the same rules as the mainland.
Thus, in neither country does banning mean absolutely no access. Wherever you are, if you want to read something badly enough and you have the appropriate resources, you can. However, not everyone does have the appropriate resources, especially children subject to their parents’ and school’s limitations on what they can read.
I hope this article answered some of your questions on what banning books is all about. If you have any more questions, or want to tell me how book banning works in your country, feel free to comment below!