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Say How It Is

From June to December of 2021, the American Library Association reported 155 book censorship attempts. If that number strikes you as high, it is. However, surveys indicate that 82-97% of book challenges go unreported and receive little media attention.

Many of you will recall the media attention received earlier this year when a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to remove Maus from the 8th grade curriculum. Maus is a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel in two installments that depicts the events of the Holocaust. It was based on the author Art Spielman’s father who survived Auschwitz. In hopeful news, the book has had over 80 holds on it at the Tulsa City-County Library for the last few months, and bookstores have been involved in Maus giveaways. But, what of the 82-97% of book challenges that remain under the radar?

There has been a proliferation of challenges to books in recent months, particularly to those found in school libraries and curricula. Nearby, Bristow Public Schools faced a challenge to 47 book titles that parents deemed inappropriate for students. 9 of those 47 books were not in the library collection at all, and 7 now have 16+ content labels. There are new policies in place that allow parents to opt-out of titles determined to have content rated 16+, opt-out of access to classroom libraries, or opt out of having access to any library books at all.

The American Library Association Code of Ethics includes the following statements:

  • We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  • We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

Every librarian I know believes that providing equitable access to information is fundamental. Some (myself included) would even say sacred.
As librarians, we believe that parents have the sole responsibility for the content in the books and movies their children access. Parents can and should make those decisions for their children. But here’s the rub for some: parents can only make that decision for their own children—not the children of others.

Art Spiegelman had this to say about complaints of rough and objectionable language and imagery in Maus:

This is disturbing imagery… But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”

One of my favorite authors, Jeanette Winterson, describes how finding poetry and literature saved her. In her memoir Why be happy when you could be normal? she describes why we need books that create discomfort:

“A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”

For Winterson, a queer kid growing up in 1960s Manchester, England, tough literature made her feel seen and less alone.

Books that are frequently challenged tend to be those about marginalized communities. They might have LGBTQUIA+ content or depictions of racial injustice. When these books are challenged, we need to take a moment to reflect on what we’re gaining when we silence these voices. We should also consider what we lose. Since 2001, ALA has compiled a snapshot of the top 10 most challenged books of the previous year. Here’s the top 10 list from 2020 as well as a list of 100 titles from the last decade that I’ll share in the hopes that you’ll find a book with language powerful enough to say how it is. After all, as the magnet in my office reads, “everything I need to know about life I learned by reading banned books.”

When you read a book, you enter a different world. But the act of reading does more than broaden our world-view; it creates empathy, and nurtures civility.
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