Monday, 26 September 2011

Banned Books Week 2011

This week is Banned Books Week in the USA. Organised by the American Libraries Association, this has run annually since 1982 and is billed as a celebration of the freedom to read.

Every year in the US, several hundred books are ‘challenged’ – that is to say, or school or a library receives a formal written complaint – most often from a parent – requesting that a book be removed. The vast majority of these challenges affect books for children and – increasingly – for young adults.

Not all books that are challenged end up being taken off the shelves, but a fair few do. For example, in Texas, for every book challenged in schools during 2009/10, around one in five was give some form of restricted access and one in four was removed altogether. In some cases, a book can be taken off the school curriculum in individual schools or school districts because of the objection of one parent.

Judy Blume, in her 1999 introduction to Places I Never Meant to Be, dates the change in attitudes to the 1980 presidential election. For a decade before that, she says, she’d felt free to write pretty much what she pleased. But then “the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organised and determined.”

Outright censorship may be less of an issue in Europe than it is in the US. But don’t imagine that as non-US writer you are unaffected. Anne Rooney, a Cambridge based YA writer who had one of her own books removed from an elementary school in Texas last year, believes that writers elsewhere are being affected even before their books are published.

“Non-fiction publishers are more cautious than fiction publishers in my experience. Children’s non-fiction is illustrated, which is costly to produce. The publisher has to be sure they can sell into their targeted markets, which usually include the USA, or they can’t afford to publish the book at all.”

This can lead to publishers removing passages that might reduce sales in the US. And to writers self-censoring.

“We know what is not going to get through and why make work for ourselves at the editing stage by including material that will be challenged?” says Rooney.


Similar to Banned Books Week, Canada holds Freedom to Read Week at the end of February. This year, Canadians were invited ‘Free a Challenged Book’ on Bookcrossing. As big fans of Bookcrossing ourselves, we think that’s a great idea.

Why not pick a banned book of your own and set it free? It doesn’t have to be from the ALA list. You can choose any book that has banned at some point in its history. (If you want some ideas, take a look at Then write and tell us what book you chose, why, and where you left it. We have a copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to give away for the best entry.


Read more about censorship and Banned Books Week in the October edition of Words with Jam. And you can join in Banned Books Week by taking part in the ALA’s Virtual Read Out on YouTube.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

60 Seconds with Emma Donoghue

[First published in the February 2011 issue of Words with JAM]

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma studied English and French at University College, Dublin. She moved to England in 1990 and went on to gain a PhD from Cambridge University. She became a writer at the age of 23.

Her novels include the award-winning Hood (1995); Slammerkin (2000), a historical novel; Life Mask (2004), which tells the true story of three famous Londoners in the late eighteenth century; and The Sealed Letter (2008), joint winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award (Lesbian Fiction). Her short story collections include Kissing the Witch (1997), a collection of re-imagined fairytales; The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002); and Touchy Subjects (2006), stories about taboos.

Her non-fiction includes Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), a survey of printed texts on lesbian themes published between the Restoration and the end of the eighteenth century. She is also the editor of What Sappho Would Have Said: Four Centuries of Love Poems Between Women (1997); and The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories (1999).

Her most recent novel is Room (2010), shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She now lives in Canada, with Chris, Finn and Una.

Which was your favourite childhood book?
The Narnia cycle.

Where do you write?
Anywhere I happen to be.

Which was the book that changed your life?
Jeanette Winterson's The Passion taught me what should have been obvious, that I could be an out lesbian and a great writer at the same time.

What objects are on your desk, and why?
Every bloody thing I'm trying to keep out of my small kids' mouths or am meaning to file away... plus some beautiful wooden bowls I can't see because everything else obscures them.

Short stories or novels - which is more you?
Can't choose, won't choose, and that goes for plays and nonfiction too.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn't?
Many - the chemistry is most mysterious - couldn't stand The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for instance.

What have you learned from writing?
We're here on earth to let out the stories in our heads that no one else can tell.

Which book do you wish you'd written?
Today? Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle.

E-books - nemesis or genesis?
Haven't read one yet but all in favour.

Which book/writer deserves to be better known?
Catherine Austen, Walking Backwards.

What are you working on at the moment?
Wading through email up to my eyeballs ... but also a novel about a murder in 1870s San Francisco.

Which nostalgic snack do you wish they still made?
Acid drops like I remember them from Ireland circa 1975