A glass shelf containing some of the country’s most notable challenged books adorns the entrance of the Chicago Public Library’s Lincoln Belmont branch. The books are surrounded by yellow tape and red signs that inevitably draw the attention of those who walk inside to the titles that have been banned or attempted to be banned in other libraries across the country.
But instead of taking the books off the shelves, in celebration of Banned Book Week 2022, visitors to the library were invited to learn about each and every one of them and stimulate discussion on the subjects for which they were banned. The City Lit Theater Company joined the effort by presenting a theatrical screening of iconic banned and contested books so people could make their own decisions about whether to read them.
Last week, city and Chicago Public Library officials declared Chicago a haven for these stories by establishing “book sanctuaries” in the city’s 77 different community areas and 81 library branches. This includes a commitment to expand local access to banned or contested books through library programming.
“As one of the most diverse cities in the country, Chicago prides itself on continuing to welcome people from all walks of life and providing them with spaces to share their experiences,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a press release.
Meanwhile, attempts to ban books across the country — including in the Illinois suburbs — are escalating at a rate not seen since the American Library Association began tracking data more than 20 years ago, according to its latest Report.
2022 already has the highest number of reported complaints documenting attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different titles, compared to 1,597 books for all of 2021, the report found. The targeted titles are stories that focus on LGBTQ, sexuality, race and racism, the association reported.
The removal of these stories from library and school shelves can be particularly detrimental to young people who may relate to the stories or characters in the books, said Tracie Hall, executive director of the American Library Association.
Hall praised the City of Chicago’s move to create libraries, saying it “reflects the city’s intent to be a place of belonging for everyone, especially people who are marginalized, silenced along with their stories.” or excluded altogether. She said. “Now, at a time when calls for censorship of books and attacks on writers and librarians are at an all-time high, surpassing even those of the McCarthy era, the Book Sanctuary is a reminder that ideas and stories — albeit we disagree on this – should bring us together instead of tearing us apart.”
The effort to ban the books doesn’t have a specific face or come from any particular group, Hall said. Indeed, she said, attempts to challenge the titles are coming from both sides of the political spectrum, Democrats and Republicans, whether in the Illinois suburbs or in California. But the report found that extremist groups have played a key role in escalating attempts to ban books in the country, Hall said.
“They recruit parents and tell them that as good parents, they should work to ban these books,” Hall said.
The report also highlights the role conservative politicians and politicians have played in recent efforts to ban books promoting LGBTQ experiences. These attempts to ban the books may take the form of a written objection, a complaint form submitted to a library, or a request for the title to be removed on social media or another platform.
“It’s all the books that are mostly written by or about the experiences of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and LGBTQ people,” Hall said. “It may be out of a desire to silence these communities because, increasingly, in this country, we understand that we will not be able to move forward without counting on justice and inclusion.”
PEN America, a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group for literature and free speech, identified 50 groups leading efforts to ban books at the national, state and local levels, according to its latest report on the growing movement to censor books in schools . These include conservative Facebook and other social media groups. Moms for Liberty, which has Illinois chapters in Lake, Cook, and DuPage counties, is cited as one of the most active groups with a total of 200 chapters.
In Illinois, several school districts have banned a number of books raising queer voices, according to the PEN report.
Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir has been banned from Lake Villa Community High School. The same title was banned at the Harlem School in Machesney Park. At Rowva Community United School in Oneida, Illinois, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas was pulled off the shelves, according to the PEN report.
Overall, the report said that from July 2021 to June 2022, local officials banned 2,532 books by 1,261 authors, 290 illustrators and 18 translators. The bans occurred in 138 school districts in 32 states, the report said.
The most banned book was Gender Queer, which has been banned in 41 districts and was deemed “pornographic” for its illustrations of sexual acts while telling a factual story by the author dealing with gender identity and relationships with family and friends grapples.
In June, the board of directors at Downers Grove High School voted unanimously to keep the book in its libraries, even after a group of parents and some members of the far-right Proud Boys group raised concerns about the controversial title, the Chicago Sun-Times reported .
Just last week, the Barrington school board voted to keep Flame and This Book Is Gay, two books on gender and sexuality.
Finally, by a vote of 4 to 3, the board accepted a recommendation from an advisory committee of experts at the school that the books should be preserved after it was determined that they did not meet the standard for profanity and pornography.
Erin Chan Ding, a board member, said the books’ removal could potentially impact young people who may identify as LGBTQ students. And while the books may have strong pictures and words, it should be up to parents to decide whether their children read them.
Also in August, members of the Barrington School Board voted to keep “gender queer” in the Barrington High School library.
“We provide these books, but we don’t actively include the contested books in the curriculum,” said Chan Ding, mother of an eighth and fourth grader.
As a mother, she understands that some parents question the books and want to prevent access to them. “I have empathy for parents who disagree with our decision and I recognize and fully appreciate that there is a spectrum of opinions. … It is the parent’s responsibility and role to do what is best for their own child, but that does not mean limiting access for other people. “
Chan Ding said Chicago’s recent announcement of creating book sanctuaries was “both encouraging and alarming.”
She worries that efforts to ban more titles will continue to ramp up in the suburbs. But she said she’s glad kids will have access to the books in her neighboring town.
Chicago Public Library Commissioner Chris Brown said: “Book bans threaten to silence the stories of people – mostly from and representative of marginalized communities – and limit the scope and variety of stories and perspectives we can share .”
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The Book Sanctuary, he said, “aims to empower people everywhere to further demonstrate their support for books — and the people who love and protect them — by mobilizing action in their own communities.”
Brown invited Chicagoans to join in by committing to creating safe spaces for stories by opening their own book sanctuary in a library, classroom, coffee shop, public park, or even a bedroom bookshelf.
Commitments include collecting and protecting books at risk, making books at risk widely accessible, hosting book talks and events to stimulate conversation, including story hours focused on different characters and stories, and educating others about the history of the ban and burning of books.
Brown said the Chicago Public Library’s facilities will be open to readers from the suburbs: “We need to make sure our readers understand that they can always turn to us.”
Brown also invited other libraries and residents to use the guidelines the library has provided.
Learn more at TheBookSanctuary.org.