Celebrate Banned Books!

Let Freedom Read logo with an open book that has red, pink, yellow, blue, and orange light beaming from the pages. Text: Banned Books Week, October 1–7, 2023.

Banned Books Week: October 1–7

For Oct 1–7, we celebrate Banned Books Week where we highlight materials that have been challenged or removed from collections all over the country. You may have heard of some recent book bans, like the one from the San Ramon Valley Board of Education that garnered national attention not long ago. Additionally, you may have been following other public libraries, school districts, and school boards that have faced challenges brought to them by members of the public or parents.

The 2022/23 school year saw a large increase in bans and I would like to say that it is slowing down. However sadly that does not seem to be the case. 2023 is set to have a record number of books bans this year. "Through the first eight months of 2023, the ALA tracked 695 challenges to library materials and services, compared to 681 during the same time period last year, and a 20% jump in the number of "unique titles" involved to 1,915." For most of us in education and related fields that does not come as a surprise given the current political climate in the United States.

What's a Banned Book?

For those who are unfamiliar with what is a banned and what is a challenge book simply put:

  • A challenged book is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.
  • A banned book is books that have been completely removed from a library or have been challenged in an attempt to have them removed from a library, based on the objections of a person or a group.

This, in essence, is a form of systematic censorship. This desire to control what materials are on the shelf has caused some library boards to withdraw their ALA membership. Even celebrities have been weighing in on the unprecedented number of book challenges that are happening across the country. It has gotten to the point that there is potential legislation in California, AB-1078 to make book challenges more difficult. I encourage you to listen to the recent American Library Association president podcast speaking out on the issue of book challenges and the position libraries and librarians find themselves having to navigate.  Now I could bore you with a lot of data and statistics about the number of book challenges that are happening across the nation. However, instead I will pull another piece of my childhood out to explain why I am wholeheartedly against book banning.

My Childhood Experience

If you have read my other blogs, you probably already know I am from Kentucky, my mother was visually impaired, and I learned to read very young, so I could act as a second set of eyes to help my mother navigate the world. My parents, however, didn't rest on me being able to read; but my father was a stickler for reading comprehension, which usually was me reading the paper and giving him news bytes.

The summer before school started my wayward (and I really do mean wayward) biological grandfather had come to visit us for a portion of the summer. My grandfather was a Dr of divinity and a pastor, and during one point of his visit I got into a discussion about prayer. At that time in my life, I was what you call uber religious, and when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up my answer was a Carmelite nun.

I told my grandfather that I struggled with keeping my mind from wandering when I prayed. I told him Carmelite nuns are a monastic order that rarely engages with the public, the recent blow up with the Texas order aside, so being able to quiet my thoughts would be crucial if I ever wanted to become one. My grandfather suggested that perhaps the best way to work on building a relationship with God would be to write letters, like Celie does in The Color Purple.

I began doing as he suggested. However, that suggestion was like a lightning bolt in my mind. I had to read exactly what Celie was writing in her letters. I was an independent child who was given her own money to spend as I liked. After my ballet class I stopped by my local bookstore, which was downstairs in the Louisville Galleria, which kind of still stands today, and purchased my first copy of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

The book covers Celie's life from a teen into adulthood, close to probably the age I am now. As a first read goes I remember crying, laughing, getting angry and feeling as if I got a glimpse of how the many women in my own life that I admired may have had to learn to navigate the world. I read that copy over and over until it literally fell apart that summer. My mistake however was when I decided to use the novel as part of my weekly reading assignment.

I was a new student at St. Elizabeth as at the time the Louisville Archdiocese had begun a process of merging and closing low enrollment schools. I had been put into "remedial" reading, to which my parents would later quickly correct by the second week of school, as I had taken my literature lessons with the seventh/eighth grade class at my old school. Sadly, though by the time I reached 4th grade I was wholly disinterested in any of the titles on my "approved summer reading list". Don't get me wrong Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge are great books, but they bored me to tears as a kid. They were what I called a "baby books" and while I finished them, they did not move me and honestly put Judy Blume on my personal reading ban list. Though I would learn to appreciate Judy Blume's YA novels a little later.

Third week of school our teacher, Ms. Davis gave us the homework assignment to write a report about one of the books we read over the summer. Now of course the smart thing to do would have been to choose one of those "baby books", write a summary and be done. Of course, though I was not a child who did anything simple. I wrote my report on The Color Purple and turned it in.

Two days later my mother and father got a call from my teacher that they needed to come in and speak with her, the principal, and the priest for St. Elizabeth parish. My parents immediately asked what I did! The grilling I got, I will not repeat here, let's just say they went through every sacrilegious thing a child could possibly do in church.

My parents and I stayed after school for the conference in the principal's office them giving me the stank eye the entire time as they waited. The principal whose name I no longer recall opened the conversation saying they had heard from Ms. Davis that I was reading questionable material especially considering I had just gotten out of remedial reading, and they were concerned about the "exposure". Then she proceeded to read my book summary with the priest and Ms. Davis nodding. They told my parents that the subject matter of the book was not one that a child my age should be reading and that they needed to remove that book from our home. I remember watching the expression on my parents faces and wanting to slowly back out of the room or become paint on the wall.

My parents let the principal finish rambling on and then they lit into her, Ms. Davis, and the priest. My father was especially incensed by the conversation. He himself had read the book when it first came out and loved it. He had found my wanting to read the novel wonderful and he had spent most of the summer explaining things I didn't understand from his own childhood memory (my father was born in 1918). We had had some very heavy discussions as the novel does cover some very difficult topics for children, especially if you are a little Black girl as it can be easy to resonate with Celie, even if you never experienced the depth of abuse she did. It had also helped me bond further with my great grandmother and her sisters who enjoyed that my reading that book had sparked an interest in Black history, and the history of my own family.

Needless to say, it was one of the most uncomfortable hour meetings I ever had the misfortune to attend. Nevertheless, I learned a few important things:

  • My parents did not care what I read as long as I kept reading and asked questions when I needed to.
  • They didn't believe anyone had the right to shackle my mind and keep me from reading whatever I wanted to read, religion or not.
  • That my parents especially were not going to allow people who did not look like us dictate to them that I should not be reading a book about Black people written by a Black person.
  • And finally, that books with difficult subject matter not only challenged how I viewed the world but my place in it which to them was an important life-long skill.

Yet my biggest take away was that my mind did not belong to my teachers, my priest, or my parents. It was mine! Just like I didn't let the public librarians dissuade me from checking out Agatha Christie and Steven King (I had a first edition "Carrie"- I also read until it fell apart) I should not let my teachers stop me from reading what interested me.

Ms. Davis never challenged what I read after that. Largely she gave me a wide berth when it came to my reading habits. I would go on to read that year Margret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Nora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and the The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison for my book summary assignment.

Every year there are children who are denied access to what I feel are some of the greatest novels ever written for various reasons from the content having sex, abuse, death, magic, race, racism, or concepts that conflict with living a religious life. Sometimes these books are put on the chopping block by individuals who never took the time to read them themselves. I often wonder if any of those children are like I was, searching for a wider understanding of the world, and it makes me sad. This was one of the reasons I became a librarian. As I know not every child has a Jane and William in their corner fighting for their right to have the only true freedom that exists in this world, the freedom to learn, to question, to imagine and to dream.

Banned Books Programs at the Library

This week, we will be hosting several programs in collaboration with SJSU to dive deeper into Banned and Challenged Books. As I like to always end a blog with a challenge or call to action. This week check out a book that was banned and read it yourself or attend one of the events we are hosting to learn more about banned and challenged books. If you can take a moment to read something other people think you shouldn't and decide for yourself what you think about the work.

Join Us for Banned Book Week

Banned Books you Should Check Out

The Color Purple

The Handmaid's Tale

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Their Eyes Were Watching God

The Joy Luck Club

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The Grapes of Wrath

The House on Mango Street

This Book Is Gay