COLUMN: Check out banned books from your library (and thank a librarian)

Last week saw the celebration of National Library Week. To kick off the week, the American Library Association released its annual State of America’s Libraries Report on April 4, which recognized the essential role of libraries in our society and highlighted some of their key contemporary challenges.

Library staff faced the highest number of attempts to ban books during the ALA’s 20-year tracking history, according to its Office for Intellectual Freedom. The ALA tracked 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021.

Most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQ + people, the association’s report said.

In a highly polarized social and political landscape informed by relentless news cycles chronicling local, state and national controversy, it is not shocking that tempers run hot. But censoring reading materials is never a good idea.

Diverse stories by diverse authors help us to build a more equitable world. When kids see themselves and their classmates represented in the books they read, they’re able to form a more comprehensive understanding of the world around them.

“I am a part of all that I have met,” Alfred Tennyson wrote in his poem “Ulysses.”

In literature, readers meet characters from all demographics. Through reading, I have sailed alongside Odysseus, the inspiration of Tennyson’s poem.

I have also become unstuck in time with Billy Pilgrim thanks to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse 5,” played cards with Randle Patrick McMurphy via Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and smarted off with Holden Caulfield reading JD Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye. ”

I might have missed out on these vicarious adventures if banned books lists were adhered to in my upbringing – each of these classics has been challenged in more than one school district.

Of course, my potential lack of literary adventures is not the most perilous consequence of banned books.

Restricted books often contain material that is dubbed inappropriate for students. Not having access to that material can allow attempts toward revisionist history or, at a minimum, ignorance of our difficult past.

I’m still reading off banned books lists as a college senior. This semester, my “Genocide, War and Literature” class syllabus includes Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel sharing the experiences of the author’s father during World War II as a survivor of a concentration camp. “Maus” made headlines earlier this year when it was banned by a Tennessee school board for containing material the board said was unsuitable for children.

Reading and discussing “Maus” in class last month added to my understanding of the Holocaust and my ability to conceptualize its victims as individual people as they deserve, rather than as mere numbers in a statistic.

To paraphrase Tennyson, I am a part of all that I have read. That exposure to all kinds of people and situations – fictional and nonfictional – contributes to the development of a more empathetic, informed world view.

It constitutes the reason why it is so dangerous to censor reading lists, and why I am seemingly always waxing poetic about the importance of the right to read freely.

According to the ALA report, the 10 most frequently challenged books this year include

1. “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe

2. “Lawn Boy,” by Jonathan Evison

3. “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson

4. “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Perez

5. “The Hate You Give,” by Angie Thomas

6. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie

7. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews

8. “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison

9. “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson

10. “Beyond Magenta,” by Susan Kuklin

I’ve read nearly all the books on this list and learned something from each of them. I encourage you to check one out from your local public library.

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