It’s Banned Book Week, so I reached out to my favorite expert to find out more about our current state of affairs and the goals of the event: a librarian.
“Banned Books Week is a celebration that libraries do every year. It’s truly a celebration of our right to read what we want. It’s sponsored by the American Library Association, so many libraries across the country celebrate this week every year,” said Kelly Tyler, Principal Librarian Youth Services at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Though she was only aware of one recent local challenge against a title, Tyler says the current trend shows the challenges facing books are increasing, not decreasing — something documented in a newly released PEN America report on school book bans.
“The American Library Association is following this across the country and it shows an upward trend. We expect 2022 to surpass 2021 in terms of the number of challenges or bans we’ll see this year,” Tyler says.
Tyler, who co-edited a 2014 book titled Intellectual Freedom for Teens: A Practical Guide for Young Adult & School Librarians, says that instead of a lone customer walking in with a complaint about a book, some places come with people Lists of books to which they object.
“You look at the list and it’s worrying to see how many are written by authors of color, BIPOC authors, or authors who are somewhere on the LGBTQIA spectrum,” Tyler says of the top 10 banned books list.
What exactly is a challenge? “In the case of public libraries, someone might come in and want the item to be moved, for it to be removed entirely from the collection, or for us to restrict access. So that would be a challenge. But banning the book would actually mean that that library, or in some cases the school, would actually ban that book or remove it from a curriculum, from a library, or from a collection.”
While a book can survive a challenge, I asked Tyler if discomfort itself can be a deterrent.
“Librarians are always talking about what we would call self-censorship and trying to be aware of it, right? We don’t want to put anything in our library branch or our collections because we’re concerned about possible outrage about cover art or what’s in a book. Because of course what we want is for everyone to have the opportunity to choose for themselves and for their own families,” she says. “I mean, the wonderful thing about LA is that it’s so diverse, isn’t it? Everyone has different tastes and opinions about what they want to read. So we want to make sure we have something for everyone.”
What is clear, however, is that these challenges are largely targeted at specific groups: the LGBGT+ community and people of color.
“If you look at the top 10 list of challenges, it doesn’t escape anyone noticing that the authors are mostly BIPOC authors, you know, writing about a variety of different experiences. So yeah, that’s definitely a concern,” Tyler says.
In an article just published in The Atlantic, writer Connor Goodwin looks at not only the book challenges you hear about—that can boost book sales—but also the ones you don’t hear about. These challenges can have a devastating impact on writers. Goodwin tells the story of Trung Le Nguyen—author of a book we covered, The Magic Fish, one of 414 that was removed in a Texas school district—and author Margaret Stohl, whose chapter book Cats vs. Robots ‘ was banned in a Missouri school district for featuring a non-binary character based on her own child.
In the piece, Stohl says with startling clarity: “They didn’t ban a book – they banned an identity.”
According to Tyler, while the LA Public Library strives to represent the diversity of the communities it serves and to support authors through the purchase of their books, there are also things the public can do.
“The more we can read broadly and really look beyond reading authors who look like us, regardless of our background, the better,” she says. “Books have always been a portal, a portal to other worlds, a portal to other experiences. And I think as long as we keep doing that, it’s only going to help.”
LAPL makes this easier by maintaining a digital collection of banned books that are always available as e-books. So readers know that there is always a place to find the books they want to read.
“Every family should have the right to choose. That’s the whole point: you should be able to explore in any direction you want,” says Tyler. “If people don’t want to read it, they don’t have to read it. But it needs to be available to those who want access to those stories or want to see themselves in books.”
Visit the Banned Books Week website for more information.
Speaking of libraries, today and tomorrow, September 23rd and 24th, the Los Angeles Public Library is hosting its fourth annual Los Angeles Libros Festival. The two-day event features entertainment for all ages with Spanish-language and bilingual storytelling, performances, workshops, and authors.
Friday’s events will be virtual and streamed on YouTube, while Saturday’s activities will again be in-person at the Central Library in downtown LA, with some events also streamed.
Phoebe Guiot, the library’s acquisitions manager, said they’ve received requests from schools in Southern California as well as Oregon and Illinois to stream the Friday program in class. Guiot said she and her colleagues were able to pack up 41 sets of books and art supplies and send them to the students.
“We were able to send them art supplies, and thanks to a donation from one of our other departments, we were able to give each student in the class a book in the chosen classrooms,” she said. “It’s super fulfilling and rewarding to get those emails from teachers with photos of their students with their books.
“For some, it’s the first book they’ve ever owned and to be able to do that for them, to be a part of it, has been really wonderful.”
Visit the site for more information on the books, schedule, authors and cast—and to see the amazing artwork by illustrator and former LAUSD teacher Leo Espinosa.
Do you have any book recommendations? Please send them to [email protected] and they may appear in the column.
As always, thanks for reading.
Author Deesha Philyaw shares a monster from a book
Deesha Philyaw is a well known and welcome name in the book pages. She recently took the time to talk to us about the LIT 16 project she created with Kiese Laymon and Robert Jones Jr. to celebrate debut authors. She is also a partner in the Ursa short story project with novelist Dawnie Walton. Philyaw’s wonderful debut story collection The Secret Lives of Church Women won several major awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Here she shares some of her favorite books in the Q&A.
Q. Is there a book or books that you always recommend to other readers?
There are two: The Fatherless Daughter Project: Understanding Our Losses and Reclaiming Our Lives and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love.
Q. What are you reading right now?
“Moonrise over New Jessup” by Jamila Minnicks
Q. Do you remember the first book that impressed you?
Yes! “The Monster at the End of This Book” starring the lovable, furry old Grover.
Q. Do you listen to audio books? If so, are there any titles or narrators that you would recommend?
I’m totally biased, but Janina Edwards is the narrator for my audio book and she is phenomenal. And I recommend the memoirs of Mariah Carey, Viola Davis, and Jennette McCurdy read by them. I’m currently listening to the audiobook for Ann Petry’s The Street.
Q. What books do you plan or hope to read next?
The next book on my to-read list is Monica Prince’s forthcoming choreopoem Roadmap.
Q. What is one memorable book experience – good or bad – that you would like to share?
I read Push by Sapphire in under 24 hours. I remember staying up all night reading it and then crying and not being able to sleep despite being exhausted. Precious (the main character) and the other characters were so real and their suffering, as Sapphire wrote, was devastating. This book devastated me.
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What’s next on ‘Bookish’
The next free Bookish event is on October 21st with guests Anthony Doerr, Michelle Tea and Martin Dugard joining host Sandra Tsing Loh.