WMU News

Potter books raise specter of book bannings

Sept. 22, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- J.K. Rowling's series of books about a geeky kid who finds out he is really a wizard has sparked numerous attempts at censorship because of their depictions of witchcraft and wizardry. As Banned Books Week begins on Sept. 23, the Harry Potter books top the list of most challenged books. The outcry over the books shows that attempts at censorship are as abundant as ever, says Dr. Ellen Brinkley, a WMU associate professor of English and author of the book "Caught Off Guard: Teachers Rethinking Censorship and Controversy."

"Certainly, censorship is alive and well today and that's why we need Banned Books Week, I think, because it's a reminder that we need to protect that right to decide for ourselves what we read," Brinkley says. "And I think ultimately we need to think about intellectual freedom and the fact that our democracy depends on a public that is educated and on intellectual freedom for that public."

Brinkley says the enormous popularity of the Harry Potter books has contributed to the number of attacks against them. But even older books like the Mark Twain classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" still generate a large number of complaints.

Parents do have a right to lodge a complaint if their son or daughter is asked to read a book that the parent finds objectionable, Brinkley says. But they don't have a right to prohibit other children from reading it.

"Parents always have the right to say, 'I don't want my child to read this book,'" Brinkley says. "What they don't have a right to say is, 'I don't want this book read in this school building or in this classroom,' or 'I don't want this book on the library shelves.'"

Brinkley says school districts need to have a well thought-out policy in place to deal with challenges to books. The policy should allow for an open discussion about the pros and cons of the challenged material before a committee made up of educators and citizens. The discussion then should lead to a rational decision.

Brinkley urges parents who think a book might be objectionable to read the entire book before lodging a complaint. Parents shouldn't read portions of the book out of context or take someone else's word for it, she says.

"A lot of times parents, I think, make decisions hastily or get caught up in some kind of controversy that they hear about," Brinkley says. "And they need to be reading those things for themselves."

Banned Books Week concludes on Sept. 30.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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