Celebrate Banned Books Week: September 18 – 24

The banner image depicts a rainbow-colored series of birds launching into flight against a backdrop of open books.

by Sahana C.

Banned Books Week is a party. We celebrate our unfettered access to whichever books we choose.

The national theme of Banned Books Week stands firm in its message against censorship. When it began in 1982, Banned Books Week was not a protest, but a reaction to an increasing number of book challenges. Banned Books Week is a space away from the intensity of media speculation and divisive press coverage.

The picture depicts the places where book challenges take place: school libraries, public libraries, schools, and academic/other. In the upper right hand corner is a graphic of rainbow-colored birds launching into flight, and the entire background is a faint depiction of open books.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom tracked almost 1,600 books that were challenged in 2021 alone, but Banned Books Week is not when those challenges are contested. It is, in the words of the official website, a time for, “shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”

The ALA is one of the loudest proponents of this effort as it supports the declaration from libraries to wholly commit to combat disinformation, promote the perspectives of historically excluded groups, and increase access to information. This is the mandate of public libraries, written into the mission statement of Howard County Library System: “We deliver high-quality public education for all.”

It is our responsibility to provide access to materials that encourage conversation and provoke thought; every addition to our collection is a choice, and decisions are never neutral. HCLS continues this practice with its Brave Voices, Brave Choices initiative. We have committed to not hiding hard conversations from our community. Discussions about appropriateness usually center the idea of balance, meaning we amplify the voices of people from historically excluded, marginalized, and unheard communities. Libraries cannot be neutral in this effort toward radical inclusion.

The picture is a rainbow-colored infographic of words and phrases cited in 2021 censorship reports as reasons for book challenges. In the upper right corner is a graphic of rainbow-colored birds launching into flight, and the entire background is a faint depiction of open books.

Kelvin Watson, director of libraries in Broward County, Florida, put it well: “Claiming neutrality endangers us as an institution by resulting in an unconscious adoption of the values of the dominant political model and framework… (w)e cannot be neutral on social and political issues that impact our customers because…these social and political issues impact us as well.” While a policy of neutrality appears to be equal, it is not equitable – it does not allow for different facets of our community to see themselves represented meaningfully, without stereotype, by people who share their life experiences.

We, as a library, stand to protect the brave voices who write, publish, and lead us into a more equitable future. We, in turn, make the brave choice to stand against the idea that we can be neutral in the battle against misinformation. The library is a steward of knowledge, led for and by the community it serves.

So, join the party! Everyone’s invited.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

Banned Books Week (Sep 26 – Oct 2)

The illustration shows two hand clasping a book with the Earth the backdrop, with the text across the hands and book reading, "Books Unite Us." The rest of the text reads, "Banned Books Week. September 26-October 2, 2021. ALA American Library Association. The illustration is in shades of purple, lime green, and orange.

by Jean B.

 “Any time we eliminate or wall off certain narratives, we are not getting a whole picture of the world in which we live…we limit our vocabulary, which complicates how we communicate with one another.”  

– Jason Reynolds, the acclaimed Maryland author named Honorary Chair for Banned Books Week

A library may be held together with walls, but it’s the doors and windows that really matter — doors open for all people and windows that illuminate all perspectives. During Banned Books Week, we celebrate the freedom to read and the commitment by libraries, publishers, teachers, writers, and readers to promote access to materials that the ALA Freedom to Read Statement says, “enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression.” Established in 1982, Banned Books Week responds to efforts across the country to challenge and censor books and focuses attention on how restricting access to information, ideas, and stories harms American cultural and political life.   

In a time when divisions cut across our nation like fault lines, the 2021 Banned Books Week theme reminds us that books can be a force for unity, even – or especially – when they convey a wide variety of views and experiences, including those that are marginal, unconventional, or unpopular. The freedom to read strengthens our ability to communicate with one another.

In a democracy, we trust individuals to learn and decide for themselves.  But to make informed choices, citizens require free access to all viewpoints and all kinds of ideas in the process of self-education. Where can people go for free access to ideas and information? Their public library! As essential institutions of democracy, public libraries implement intentional collection policies to ensure the breadth and inclusivity of materials available to their communities. For Howard County Library System, this translates into a collection that reflects a wide range of voices, including controversial and conflicting ideas.  

As the HCLS Board of Trustees affirms, while, “anyone is free to reject for [themselves] books or other materials of which [they] do not approve, [they] cannot exercise this right to restrict the freedom of others.” The freedom to read strengthens our citizenship. Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) publishes a list of the ten most frequently challenged or banned books across the nation. This snapshot reflects only a small percentage of the challenges that take place in schools and libraries.  The ALA estimates that 82 – 97 percent of requests to remove materials are unreported. As this list illustrates, the challenges come from all directions and perspectives. The freedom to read protects all points of view.

So this year, in honor of Banned Books Week, open the library door and explore our extensive collections.  Look through the windows of stories into all different kinds of lives, familiar and unfamiliar.  Explore HCLS’ Brave Voices, Brave Choices campaign to discover a wide range of experiences in our own community. It’s all free to you, and you are free to choose.

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

Banned Book Week: Children’s Challenges

The cover depicts two of Dr. Seuss's creations hopping on their "Pop."

 By Laci R.
When you hear the words “banned book,” what’s the first thought that comes to mind? Is it a particular title? Do you stay away from these books or welcome them onto your bookshelf? Is your child allowed to read these books? 
I’m always intrigued by a title that has made it onto the banned/challenged books list. Often, the reason is something that should really involve a personal decision on the suitability for any child. Instead of immediately turning away from a title, representation on the banned books list can be cause to look deeper and open up a valuable conversation. 
Reasons for a book to be banned include: racial themes, alternative lifestyles, LGBTQIA+, profanity, violence, negativity, sex, magic and witchcraft, unpopular religious or political views, or any theme deemed unsuitable for a particular age group.  
I have chosen a few children’s books to highlight:   

Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss 
Found in many personal collections, this Dr. Seuss book depicts rambunctious kids hopping on their father as he tries to relax. This book was challenged because it depicts violence against fathers and was thought to encourage such behavior. Parents grew concerned that the silly rhyming story would cause children to destroy their homes, and some even stated that their local library should pay for any resulting damages. Dr. Seuss is no stranger to the banned books list, due to racist depictions of people through wording and exaggerated facial features. However, it’s a bit more far-fetched to ban a story that is just so naturally zany.  
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak 
You’ve likely read this story and may even have it memorized. This classic makes the banned books list for many reasons. Some find it psychologically damaging and traumatizing for young children due to the explosive emotions that Max seemingly can’t control. Child abuse is also listed as a reason, due to Max’s mom sending him to bed without any dinner as a punishment. In addition, witchcraft and supernatural elements continue to check the boxes for reasons to be on a banned books list. However, I see this book as an opportunity to discuss how actions have consequences, imagination knows no bounds, and emotions can often be bigger than us and difficult to control.

The Family Book by Todd Parr 
Todd Parr is certainly not someone you would ever expect to see on a banned books list. His vibrant, emotive, and inclusive books are customer favorites. This title has all the great things you look for in Parr’s books, but not everyone agreed with the depiction of diverse families. Having two moms or two dads caused a lot of people to complain. Sadly, any mention of LBGTQIA+ characters, themes, or elements is often a cause for parents to call for banning books. Instead, I suggest using that time reading together to celebrate diverse love and educate your child about all the wonderful representations of the rainbow- and families!  

Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park  
Even a well-loved series isn’t safe from the banned books list. Junie B. Jones certainly has her own way of talking and expressing herself. This results in a lot of technical grammatical errors with phrases like “runned speedy quick” and “did a shrug.” Junie’s speech patterns landed this series on the banned books list as parents were worried it could encourage young readers to mimic her ways.  
The Giver by Lois Lowry 
This is my all-time favorite book. I read it in middle school and immediately loved it. Every re-read results in the same feeling and, honestly, that’s rare to find. Concern for this book consists of a variety of reasons. “Twisted” and “lewd” content, occult themes, violence, infanticide, euthanasia, sexuality, and suicide are all reasons this story has made its way onto the banned books list. Some expressed that this was the very kind of book that leads a person to have no concern for humanity. The themes in this book offer room for a lot of heartfelt, thoughtful, and meaningful discussion. The Giver is beautiful and haunting, and it makes me feel deeply and fully.
I mentioned the reasons a book might be banned. What about the reasons not to ban a book? Something that isn’t liked by one shouldn’t be taken away from everyone. Books are truly among our best teachers, having a broad impact that can change the world, Censorship isn’t protection from the difficult realities of the world, rather it’s a practice in inefficacy and privilege.  

Everyone should read banned books, including children. Many of the most frequently banned books either are celebrated classics or future classics. I encourage you to read banned books with your child, to look deeper, and to maintain a safe space for conversation. 
Laci is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS. They love a wide variety of music, spending time in the garden, Halloween, cats, and crafting. Their “to read” list is always full of graphic novels and picture books.  

It’s Banned Books Week

The picture shows a multicolored open book with the description, "Censorship is a Dead End. Find your freedom to read during Banned Books Week! September 27 - October 3, 2020 bannedbooksweek.org

by Julie F.

“The novel, the story. the poem, are still subjected to a paradox with a long history: Fighting the written word acknowledges its power” (53). – from Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword by David K. Shipler

It’s easy to think of Banned Books in terms of the classics, many of which are read in high school and challenged at that level: Beloved, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Slaughterhouse-Five are three that spring to mind even before I look at a list. In fact, you can even listen here to Benedict Cumberbatch reading Kurt Vonnegut’s famous letter to the Drake County School Board after they banned and burned his masterpiece. Sherlock Holmes himself in support of our First Amendment!

But Banned Books Week involves so much more than the classics, and organizations like the American Library Association, PEN America, and the National Coalition Against Censorship are continually working “to promote freedom of thought, inquiry and expression and oppose censorship in all its forms” (from the mission statement on the NCAC website).

What other forms, you might ask? Award-winning musicals and plays, from Sweeney Todd to Shakespeare’s own Twelfth Night, have been censored and banned in recent years. The Defender Database of the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund has a comprehensive list of theatrical challenges and bans nationwide, and works “to educate everyone about the subjective and transient standards that have been employed by censor[s].”

Another form of censorship you may not have considered is the banning of books in prisons and jails, which is often arbitrary, with no efficient review mechanisms and no independent oversight outside of the prison system. PEN America has also found that literature about topics including race and civil rights is disproportionally subject to banning; you can read about their findings here and learn more about their Literature Locked Up initiative.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom provides a continually updated list of resources for those interested in crucial First Amendment issues. To begin, I would suggest reading the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA’s Freedom to Read statement, both of which advocate for our nation to trust individual citizens – not government censors – to make their own best decisions about reading, expression, and the free and open exchange of ideas. After all, as Justice John Marshall Harlan famously wrote for the court in Paul Robert Cohen v. California in 1971, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, reading, journalism, and all kinds of music.