January 2, 2023

What Could Be an Eye-Opening Project


Regular readers know I come from a family of librarians and teachers. For the last four years, I have volunteered at the local library and served as president of the Friends library organization. I also serve on the city library board.

I am an avid book lover, promoter, and reader. Being able to read is one of the keys to a fulfilling life. Being able to choose what I read is as normal as breathing. 

It has never occurred to me that a book I would like to read may not be available because someone else has decided it wouldn't be "appropriate" for me.

I am certainly aware of books being banned. The  Nazis in WWII were notorious for banning and burning books they found subversive. During the Reformation, The Roman Catholic Church attempted to halt unauthorized texts from making their way into public hands. When I was much younger "Catcher in The Rye"  had a reputation as too racy for my eyes. Lolita wasn't appropriate for the young, either. But, a general, organized campaign against certain types of reading material wasn't something I ever encountered.

Things have changed. For reasons ranging from sexual identity issues to this country's history with different races of people, religious or political issues, and violence deemed too harsh for younger readers....why a particular book should not be available is a long list. Though often thought of as the pursuit of conservative or fundamentalist folks, there are those on the more liberal side of things that are upset, as well.

Libraries, both public and in schools, are now faced with difficult choices. Demands from parents, politicians or various action groups are no longer hesitant to make their feelings well known. It is simple to find all sorts of lists that include anywhere from a few dozen titles to over a thousand that have inflamed people for some reason. Library and school board members have been threatened.

As a parent and grandparent, I wholeheartedly agree there are some books that I wouldn't have wanted my children exposed to at too early an age. Likewise, my grandkids range in age from 12 to 16; there are subjects or presentations that I don't believe they are mature enough yet to read and process.

What I find unreasonable and dangerous is that someone else wants to make it difficult, if not impossible, for me to read a particular book or be the decisionmaker for my family. 

I completely accept that a parent has the right to decide if someone in their family should be shielded from something until they are grown enough to handle the information. Frankly, with what youngsters are exposed to on various streaming movie channels of smartphone apps, I am a little surprised that the movement to ban certain printed material hasn't extended more aggressively to other media. A PG-13 rating for a movie doesn't mean what it used to.

What all of this has led me to is an interestingintention and eye-opening project for the new year. I found a book published by the American Library Association: Read These Banned Books - a Journal and 52-week Reading Challenge. 

In addition to a list of books that are often on various book-banning lists, this journal provides a summary of the content of each. More importantly, it lists the reasons often given as to why this particular book should be removed from all library shelves for everyone.

The Library Association asks the reader to check out each book from their local library, read it, and write some thoughts and reactions in the journal section. I gather there are three primary reasons to do so:  see how many of the "banned" books are available in your library, keep them circulating, and attempt to understand why each book is deemed inappropriate for certain segments (or all) of the population.

My intention is to approach each book with an open mind. If there are topics, a wording choice that seems more designed to shock than communicate, or assumptions made by the author that seem unsubstantiated in the text, I will note those deficiencies. If a book strikes me as inappropriate for various reasons, I will make that clear in my summary. 

Importantly, I am not reading a book on the list to make light of those who see a reason to question its availability, mock their stance, or state that anything in print should be available to anyone, any time, and any place. If something is deemed not suitable for an eight or nine-year-old by a parent or guardian, that person should take steps to keep their child from being exposed to it. 

But, and this is the big but, one parent's decision cannot become the de facto standard for every parent, every person, every library. Each one of us is free to not pick up a book if it offends us. But your definition of offensive may not be mine and you have no right to force it on me.

This approach absolutely does not mean I agree with banning books, any books, for any reason. But, there will be some books in this project that I will understand the rationale for restricting its availability to certain segments of our population. Many of the titles appear to be YA-based or Young Adult in content, so they will be read and critiqued with that in mind.

No to banning books, yes to sensible restrictions imposed on an individual basis.

So far, the first three books on the list are available at my library. I have started the first one, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. I have never read it, actually never heard of it before now. So, I am starting completely fresh.

This could be a fascinating project for 2023. If it seems useful or interesting, I will share updates on my findings throughout the year.


34 comments:

  1. You have embarked on a very interesting project. I'm sure you will learn some new things and be shocked at some things. Your comments and reviews will help others make a decision on these banned books and will be extremely useful. I agree with restricting access to some types of content or at least have a warning for a "banned" section in a corner. Maybe we should have a restricted area much like some of the old movie rental stores that had an "adult" section that only 18+ could enter.

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    1. The old 18+ movie rental area was easy to police. The clerk who checked out something from the adult section had a bit of control.

      Now, most libraries use automated checkout systems so a similar control wouldn't work as well. Plus, people mature at different ages and have different family values, so who is going to determine what is too much for a 10 year old?

      Common sense and parental oversight for one's own family should keep the "problem" taken care of.

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  2. A noble cause. I couldn't pledge to read one of these books every week, but I might make a point of reading a few of them, just to get a sense of what all the controversy is about. A agree no books should be banned for adults. But I kind of disagree about setting standards for children. We do it all the time. Kids can't drive, they can't drink or smoke, they can't serve in the military, they can't work. And if a guy has sex with a girl under 16 ... it's rape! So banning dirty books from third or fourth graders doesn't seem like nonsense to me. But I know it's got all political, and people are crazy about it. And also, kids can view porn on the internet anytime they want. But still, that's not a good thing, is it?

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    1. There is no way I will get through all these books in one year, plus I am sure some will not be available at the library.

      Keeping books out of the hands of those not mature enough to process the information is needed. The question really is, who decides. And, yes, children grow up a lot faster today with the Internet awash in all sorts of inappropriate stuff.

      Even so, general age restrictions make sense in many cases.

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  3. That is so fascinating! You are going to have a great literary adventure. And think of all the interesting conversations this will spark. I hope I'm included in some of them. This first book sounds intriguing. I'm going to join you in reading it.

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    1. Guaranteed I will be exposed to authors, subjects, and writing styles I don't often encounter. Many of the books are YA (young adult) as their target. I will be fascinated to read what any particular author thinks is appropriate for that age group.

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  4. I just put the first book on hold at my library. Someone else beat me to it, so I may have to wait a little time.

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    1. Keep those books in circulation!

      I will list several of the titles so you may have a better chance of snagging one quickly:

      *The House of the Spirit by Isabel Allende

      *Speak by Laurie Anderson

      *I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Mara Angelou

      *Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

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  5. Bravo Bob! Agree 100%. Just downloaded the book/guide with the list. Thanks for the post and Happy New Year!

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  6. I don't believe in restricting books
    Period. Ever. For any reason. Under any circumstance. I do agree with giving a summary to parents in some places under some circumstances as well as an opt out for individual kids if a book is a group project. As for Tim's point, individual children process things differently and dirty is a very relative term. Im.the parent of a kids who have read both Stephen King and books like Maus at 111 and 12. And if a book discusses varying sexualities or transgenfer issues I don't consider that :dirty". I'm grabbing the list and will look at the books!!

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    1. "Dirty" is a pejorative term that generates emotion but no definitive definition and is rarely helpful.

      I have no problem in restricting certain material based on usual age restrictions. But, a parent should have the ability to overule such a restriction if, in their judgement, their child can handle the material and it prompts discussion.

      Book banning has no place in our society.

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  7. This looks like an incredible project! I need to check this out as well. As a former children’s librarian, I agree that there are certain books and themes that must be carefully considered when it comes to age appropriateness. Thankfully, I never had any issues come up in my library, but there was a plan in place in case a parent wanted to challenge a book.

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    1. I am so glad a former children's librarian has joined our discussion. You have a "front-line" feel for the problems.

      The fact that your library had a plan to respond to a challenge makes the issue real for the rest of us.

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  8. I can't think of anyone who would be a better fit for this project than you, Bob. Please do keep us posted. I wonder if the feeling of entitlement that pervades today's society is part of the reason some people believe they can overstep when it comes to making choices for others.

    On a different but related note . . . Our kids were advanced readers at an early age. Our daughter came home from elementary school one day complaining that the school librarian wouldn't let her check out a book simply because it was above her age level. Luckily, Kyra had mentioned the incident and a note from me requesting that she be allowed to borrow the book did the trick. It makes you wonder how often covert censorship occurs, doesn't it?

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    1. In situations like this maybe being overly cautious rather than censorship is the core issue. The school librarian is in a sticky situation, even more so today. Parents, school boards, and headline-hungry politians can make their job difficult.

      Your daughter's response and your awareness of her maturity are the perfect approach to this growing problem.

      Thanks, Mary, for the vote of confidence. I will post regular updates on my progress through the list.

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  9. I am a few years older than you are, and I remember the Catcher in the Rye controversy. But, at least in my town, that controversy was not about whether the book should be *available* for anyone to read, but whether it should be *required* for everyone to read -- a very different thing. My high school employed what I thought was a graceful solution, giving students a choice between two books, one of which was Catcher in the Rye. It's the only time I remember us having this kind of choice of required reading. I also participated in an extra-curricular club that, under the guidance of one of our English teachers, read some more mature content than was assigned in classes, including, I remember, a play about abortion (this at a time when Bill Baird was making headlines by advocating that contraceptives be made available to college students). When I was in high school, my mother often recommended books that she was reading to me, and she also warned me away from some. When I went to college, that relationship transitioned to one in which I recommended books to her (and sometimes warned her away from some).

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    1. The required reading choice was a brilliant workaround. In today's hypersensitive environment even giving students that option would cause problems, but the idea of choice is at the heart of the issue.

      Your comment makes me wonder if things are more inflammatory now than 50 or 60 years ago. A play that deals with abortion would send some people through the roof today if presented at a high school.

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  10. What a terrific project! I look forward to not only following your updates but I have downloaded the list and will read as many as I can too. Since I've already read some (and I'm pretty sure I haven't been damaged), I guess I have a head start :)

    I think many people think most of the books are banned because of overt sexual content. Often, it's because they discuss things (or make us question - oh my goes, not that!) "uncomfortable topics," like LGBTQ+ and race relations.

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    1. Yes, looking at the reason some of these books trigger a strong reaction is not sexual content. Complaints about religious, political, or racial sensitivity are often part of the reasons given why a particular book should be unavailable. Critical race theory is today's term for some of these sensitivities.

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  11. An interesting venture. I hope you read books with your grandchildren in mind. Does it belong on an K-5 shelf? 5-8 shelf? Or high school. My daughter reads many tough books WITH her kids. Discussions are an important way of helping them grow up in such a different world then she did. Completely different then what you and I grew up in.
    As a sixth grade teach you cannot say what a child is exposed to…in a library or on the internet. To say a parent can judge- is really not reality anymore, I don’t believe in banning books, but some of the graphic novels brought to school my last year made me wonder why we didn’t have Hustler on our elementary shelves when I was a child. Yes, many of the 8th grade boys had copies in their bedrooms- but it wasn’t suggested by or handed out by Mes Lynch in the library.

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    1. The Internet and social media have changed everything. You are right: parental oversight and control aren't what they used to be. But, librarians shouldn't have the full responsibility either.

      By the way, I would guess Hustler would be rather mainstream now, based on what is available online.

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  12. Sorry about the typos. Keyboarding on a phone is not my favorite thing,

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    1. I probably have to correct some typing mistake every third word I type on the phone ( there were four just in this sentence!)

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  13. Great project and I look forward to reading your analysis. We live near a public library being defunded because the librarians refused to ban books. Crazy times.
    Hope Springs

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    1. That would be my worst nightmare. Seriously, I would move to someplace that showed more respect for personal freedoms instead of political crazies run amuck.

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    2. It’s a fairly small community library that initially funded by some generous patrons. Luckily, our public libraries not that far away are highly rated and run by thoughtful people. We are living in crazy times.
      Hope

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    3. Thst is good to know. Even so, banning vs restricting for valid concerns is the key issue.

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  14. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/the-50-most-banned-books-in-america/51/

    I have read Gender Queer and Beyond Magenta. I have a trans-niece about to turn 17. At 12 he was cutting and a friend told the school Nurse. Were it not for her and then for his willingness to be in twice/weekly counseling, he would be dead, and she would not be alive. I love her just as I loved him.

    Open minds in our world.

    https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/the-50-most-banned-books-in-america/51/

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    1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. It brings the issue from the headlines to our homes.

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  15. As a teenager 'Black Like Me' was popular with young readers, now it is a banned book. I borrowed 'Mein Kampf' from the library when I was in high school as I wanted to know how Hitler mesmerized so many people. It was a piece of crap, I didn't read many pages before I determined Hitler was a lunatic and gave up. Our library offers computers including free internet to customers and has for a long time.

    The problem with this list is school librarians do not understand young people. All the information Generation Alpha wants they hold in their hands. They get their information from Tik Tok, Instagram, YouTube and other social media. It is necessary for Libraries to limit the books they buy to whichever books will benefit the most customers.

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    1. Being selective is very important. Conservatively 1 million books are published each year. The dilemma a librarian faces is to make available a wide spectrum of reading options. If all they offer are the best sellers, then whole segments of the population will be denied reading what might interest them. Librarians are well aware of budget tightness and work to balance popular with a wide choice of material.

      You point for children is a valid one, though my experience at the local library shows the drift away from printed books occurs in the teen years. Younger kids love story time, handling books, turning the pages, looking at drawings, and learning to read. Clearly, some books are not appropriate to this age group. Interestingly, what I am seeing is that many of the most contentious books are not appealing to the typical youngster anyway. The story line and drawings must be simple and interesting enough to hold a short attention span.

      My problems remains one person, or even a group, trying to decide what everyone can or cannot read or offer to their children.

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  16. What a great project. I'm sure you will learn a lot. Deciding what kind of books are appropriate for kids is a tough job. I had the opposite happen to me in junior high the librarian recommended a book to me about prisoners of war who were tortured and I was very upset by reading it. I think she considered it appropriate because it was part of our country's history, but it wasn't for me.

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    1. Your example is a powerful reminder that each of us should approach a reading choice from a thoughtful analysis of what we deem appropriate for us, While someone else may think a particular choice would be good (or bad) for us, that decision must come from within. Allowing that choice to be outsourced comes with risks.

      That said, there are books that obviously do not belong in the hands of an adolescent. Most of the books on the ALA list are young adult, so I read those with that in mind. Some are clearly meant for older readers, but are on a "try to ban list" because of racial, historical, religious, or sexual material. My decision to read, or not read one of those books should be my decision, not someone else's.

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