Welcome to the wonderful world of YA? Y not?! a new column about Young Adult librarianship. I am a YA librarian in a Boston suburb where I do programming, collection development, and staff a room with computers and hang out space for teens in grades 6-12. On any given day, my job can include buying books, recommending them, running a Doctor Who fan club, fangirling about the upcoming slate of MCU movies, or watching YouTube videos about farts. It’s amazing. So, I’m thrilled to kick off this column and talk about libraries, teens, and more.
Today I’m going to write about the week beloved by librarians all across the United States: Banned Books Week. This week—sponsored by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF)—is like a holiday for us librarians. It’s the perfect combination of lighthearted, tongue in cheek jokes (“Celebrate Banned Books!”) and the earnest hate of censorship that many librarians feel. It’s a week where we get to remind patrons and even introduce the idea that some people are so afraid of some ideas in books that they don’t belong in a public space. The OIF charts complaints about and challenges to books reported by librarians all across the county and releases a list of the top 10 most challenged books every year.
It’s a fun week that has inspired creative displays, a great art project out of the Lawrence, KS public library, and some important conversations. I explained it to my teens this way, some of whom had never encountered the idea of banning or challenging books, bless their little hearts: Some people dislike or disagree with various things, like poop jokes, swear words, violence, descriptions of nudity, and the fact that LGBTQ people happen to exist, so they don’t want those type of books in the library. So they challenge their presence in school and public libraries all around the country.
My teens basically all responded the same way, “That is so stupid!” Yeah, pretty much.
I would go on to say that librarians think that it’s totally fine if you don’t want to read a book with those things in it or if you don’t want your child to read those books, but that you shouldn’t attempt to prevent other people or their children from reading those books. I showed the teens a list of some of the books that had been challenged or removed from schools and libraries over the last few years. Books like Harry Potter, The Giver, The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. These are books that have been read by many of the teens who hang out in my teen room; a number of these books have even been used in their classrooms.
I had a number of these conversations with teens this week, and it was great to see them respond with such disgust and annoyance at the people who like to challenge books. It definitely gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling, so imagine how hard my eyes rolled out of my head when I popped over to Slate Magazine and saw this article: “Banned Books Week is a Crock.”
I immediately thought, Oh god, it’s Slate. Is this Ruth Graham AGAIN? Yes friends, Ruth Graham, known YA hater, is back with another silly opinion piece about how we should stop celebrating Banned Books Week, because we don’t really ban books anymore. As she says, “The books won.”
On the one hand, I get what she is saying: It’s true that no one is getting arrested for distributing copies of And Tango Makes Three, the so-dubbed “gay penguins” picture book, and it’s not illegal to sell copies of Ulysses or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. As she graciously says, “Banned Books Week is well-intentioned, and it’s unquestionably run by the good guys. In the battle between a prudish mom and freedom, it’s not hard to pick sides.” She’s definitely against banning books, thank Hypatia, patron saint of librarianship, but that’s not the problem.
What Graham doesn’t understand about the mission of libraries, and by extension Banned Books Week, are what kind of books are routinely challenged and the problem of access.
The types of books that often get challenged, or asked to be removed from school and public libraries, are the books that relate to and champion minority and marginalized voices. Let’s just take a look at the most challenged books of 2014 according to the ALA and the minority voices associated with each book:
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie — American Indian main character
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi — Iranian main character
- And Tango Makes Three Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell — “Gay penguins”
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison — African American main characters
- It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris — Discussions about puberty, sex, and giving birth
- Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples — Main characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and an interracial marriage
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini — Afghan main character
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky — Main character is sexual abuse survivor, LGBTQ characters
- A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard — Sexual abuse survivor
- Drama by Raina Telgemeier — LGBTQ characters
Basically the only one that doesn’t have LGBTQ characters or protagonists of color—as far as I know—is a book about sex and giving birth. God forbid little Johnny learn about that!
I think that one of the most important reasons that we must continue Banned Books Week is that we need to protect the narratives of marginalized voices. These are the first to come under fire. Yes, Ruth Graham, the United States doesn’t legally ban books anymore, but there are people who work to prevent people of color, abuse survivors, LGBTQ people, and other minorities from seeing themselves represented in literature. Banned Books Week needs to continue to call attention to this crime of culture because the kids of color, the at risk kids, and the LGBTQ kids are the ones who are in my teen room everyday looking for themselves in the pages of books.
The second reason we still need Banned Books Week is access to information and services. Access is something that librarians care very deeply about. It’s the reason why we have public computers for anyone to use even though it seems like computers are relatively cheap to purchase. It’s why we haven’t thrown away all of our print books because ebooks exist now. Libraries provide materials and services that not everyone has access to because of various reasons like the cost and the knowledge about and the skills to use such resources.
Graham says, “If your local library declines to carry what you want to read these days, there has been no time in history where it’s easier for you to read it anyway.” True, if you’re a middle class person with means, you can easily buy almost any book on Amazon or other online or even brick and mortar retailers. But I’m not sure if she realizes that adult hardcover books are about $30 these days. YA books are anywhere from $10 to $20. That adds up for an avid reader. What about for the kids who have to read those books for school? Hope your family can afford that, or else your grades are going to suffer!
As an example, take a look at this awesome calculator from a Massachusetts library that allows you to see how much money your library can save you. I read about 100 books last year and let’s say 50 were YA, 25 were adult, and 25 were audio. I bet I requested about one third of them through my library’s consortium. If I had purchased all of those, it would have cost me $2,098.70. That is not money that I have lying around.
Yes, books can be cheaper in ebook form, but that’s not always true. And you have to buy a device that lets you read those books. This is out of reach for a lot of people and some don’t have the tech skills necessary to navigate ebooks. That’s where libraries can help. We let people take books out for free—my library doesn’t even charge late fees! We help people use ereaders if they have them and how them how to use Overdrive or Hoopla. We have public computers with internet access and teach classes on how to use them. Heck, coworkers have even taught patrons how to use a computer mouse!
Basically, Graham needs to check her privilege. She probably has the knowledge and means to buy a book if a school or library bows to pressure and removes a book, but many, many people cannot. Libraries and librarians try our best to provide access to these materials and services because we know that many people can’t get them on their own.
Yes, in a way the books “won” as she says but in other ways we’re still struggling to get them in the hands of the most needy. I wish Ruth Graham would think about that before dissing a week that calls attention to this problem.
So, go check out a challenged book from your library and show Ruth Graham that this is still a problem today.
Next month: “Why yes, Mrs. Smith, reading comics and graphic novels does count as ‘real reading!'” Until then, go with the blessing of the YA hero Effie Trinket: May the odds be ever in your favor!