Inside the Woodridge Neighborhood Library in the U.S. capital, a wall is plastered with ominous warning signs: "Reading This Book Display Is Banned" and "No Books to See Here." Below the messages are shelves with books that have been banned, at one time or another, in parts of the United States. They include books in the popular Harry Potter series, banned for "witchcraft," and the classic futuristic novel Brave New World, which has been banned for sexual content.
Although no books have been removed from libraries or schools in Washington, the display is part of Banned Books Week, which runs through September 30. The annual event points out the perils of censorship and emphasizes the freedom to read.
Among the groups sponsoring Banned Books Week is the American Library Association (ALA), which releases an annual list of the 10 most challenged books — works that have been targeted for removal from a library or school curriculum.
"Some of the themes could be dealing with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues, race and religion," said Julius Jefferson Jr. of the ALA's intellectual freedom committee. Most requests for books to be banned "you see coming from parents, because they feel they are not appropriate for their children," he added.
Such topics may include "families with two dads or two moms," said Linnea Hegarty, executive director of Washington's DC Public Library Foundation.
"Books about war are often banned, particularly if they talk about political issues," she added, and also books about mental illness, because "some parents don't want their children to be exposed to that."
Transgender issues, profanity, Cosby
The books on this year's ALA list were mostly written for children or young adults, such as Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, which includes transgender characters, and Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer, which some critics have said is offensive due to profane language and instances of drug use.
In a first this year, a book was listed not due to its content or style, but because the author is under fire. Comedian and children's story-teller Bill Cosby wrote a series of books called Little Bill. The series is being challenged because of sexual assault allegations against Cosby.
As part of Banned Books Week, hundreds of copies of six other books that may be challenged or banned have been hidden in places like museums, restaurants and coffee shops around Washington, for anyone to take home for free.
At the Duende District Bookstore in Washington, customer Lyric Prince discovered Fahrenheit 451, a science-fiction novel that depicts an American society where books are outlawed, and firemen burn any contraband literature. Some people object to the burning of a Bible in the story.
Prince is not surprised that books like this novel published more than 60 years ago are still banned today, because "a lot of places in this country don't exactly take kindly to progressive ideas."
Another customer, Katie Schwartz, found The Giver, criticized for its violence in a story about a world of conformity. Schwartz can't believe books are still banned in the U.S., especially since the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech.
"It's an American right to express yourself however you see fit," she said. "It's also an American right to avoid things by choice that you don't agree with, and books are very easily avoided if you don't agree with them."
The American Library Association, which keeps tabs on challenges and bans, is aware of about 250 challenges last year, but it says very few succeed, and books hardly ever wind up truly banned.