When we ban books | Windows and Mirrors

What message does it send when certain stories are censored?

For most of my life, books have been a big part of my life.

Once you get to know me, you’ll quickly learn that I am the type of person who likes to visit bookstores in their spare time and will be there till they close. I have a designated photo album in my phone featuring books I have discovered on many a bookstore visit but have not purchased or read. The current running total is 161. Then there are the 30 or so single and series titles I have in a list in my Notes app.

Needless to say, I like books.

This extends to my social media habits and who I follow. There are a lot of authors and publishing companies filling up my Twitter feed.

A couple weeks ago, I saw a tweet on my feed linking to an Entertainment Weekly interview with author Angie Thomas, who wrote “The Hate U Gave” (another book on my to-read list). The piece was published during last month’s Banned Books Week (Sept. 23-29) and focused on how her book has faced pushback and has been challenged in communities across the country to be banned.

And before you ask, yes, banning books is still a thing today. In 2018.

Banned Books Week started in 1982 and celebrates our freedom to read.

Thomas’s book, which is now also a film being released later this month, tells the story of Starr Carter, a black teenager who lives in a predominantly black community but attends a predominantly white high school elsewhere. Witnessing an unarmed friend killed by a police officer awakens the activist in her and she begins to speak out against police brutality against black people.

According to the EW interview, a parent in a small city in Texas complained about the book’s featured drug use and explicit language, leading an entire school district to ban “The Hate U Give.” In another instance, law enforcement in South Carolina objected to Thomas’s book being placed on high school reading lists — and advocated for it to be removed —because it tackled police brutality.

While I wasn’t surprised to learn the book has been challenged, I was also saddened to learn it.

As an Asian American — and specifically a Cambodian American — it can be difficult to find stories that reflect my experiences. Not exactly impossible. But not exactly easy either.

So when there is something out there that reflects the experiences of a group whose story is not often told, or only told a certain way, only to have it challenged or banned, that can be discouraging.

In the EW interview, Thomas addresses the concern of whether teens are ready or mature enough to learn about police brutality. She’s straightforward in saying that black parents begin having those conversations with their children at a fairly young age — well before they reach their teens.

As a journalist, I have attended trainings and workshops on the topic and have also interviewed a black mother who said having “the talk” with her children about the potential consequences of interacting with law enforcement is not about things being fair.

It just is what it is.

All of these thoughts on book banning got me wondering if this is an issue we face on the Eastside.

Emily Calkins, readers services program coordinator for the King County Library System, said there are about 350 challenges in public and school libraries nationwide each year — these are instances, not 350 titles, so one title may be challenged multiple items.

The American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellection Freedom tracks these challenges and Calkins said it is likely they are actually under reported ,so it’s probably more than 350. She added that there is usually a mix of old titles and more recent titles when it comes to what gets challenged.

Calkins said libraries are all about access.

“Intellectual freedom means in libraries, we provide access to all kinds of information… as long as the informtion is legal, we want to provide access,” she said, adding that KCLS is lucky in that they don’t receive a lot of challenges to the materials they carry.

Calkins added that everyone has the right to not read — or not have their children read — anything libraries carry.

The goal of someone challenging material is to remove it completely from the system. And thus, making that decision for an entire community.

And in short, that’s not cool.

I don’t care what you may or may not want to read. That’s up to you and I’m not going to try to force you to read something you don’t want to. Or try to take away a book you enjoy just because I don’t like it. You don’t see me going around trying to pull all copies of “The Great Gatsby” off the shelves, do you? (A possibly controversial opinion, I know. Apologies to English teachers everywhere who assign that book, specifically the now-retired Peter Breyssee formerly of Mountlake Terrace High School. I am just not a fan.)

According to the ALA, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” from 1964 frequently makes the top 10 list of the most challenged books each year. More recent titles being challenged include “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie from 2007, “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier from 2012 and Jessica Herthel’s “I Am Jazz!” from 2014.

Reasons books have been challenged include profanity, sexually explicit content, LGBTQ characters, gender identity issues and the previously mentioned issue of police brutality. Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” from 2003 has been challenged because it has been thought to lead to terrorism and promote Islam, according to the ALA website.

Cathy Wellington, education technology curriculum developer for secondary schools for Bellevue School District added that they have had parents share concerns about books depicting war scenes and whether their student is ready for that level of violence.

When that happens, she said there will be a conversation between the parents and the teacher, and things may be resolved with alternative materials and reading assignments for the student.

Many of the issues I mention (and obviously, this list is in no way comprehensive to why books are challenged) have to do with issues minority and more marginalized communities face. And what kind of message does that send to someone who identifies with any of those groups?

What would a story depicting the police brutality the black community faces mean to a young black boy or girl who has to grow up being wary of law enforcement? What would a story about a transgender teenager mean to a young boy or girl grappling with gender identity issues? What would a story about a young American Indian attending a school — where the only other person who looks like him is the mascot — mean to a young person trying to figure out life off the rez?

And what would it mean to them if these stories were banned? That they were not only not allowed to read them, but also couldn’t access them if they tried?

To me, it would tell me that my story, my experiences and my struggles don’t matter. That whatever I am going through or have gone through may make others uncomfortable, so instead of using that as a jumping-off point to teach others or start a conversation, we’re just going to ignore it.

Elizabeth Roberts, teacher librarian at Wilburton Elementary School in Bellevue and kindergarten through fifth grade information literacy curriculum developer for the Bellevue School District, thinks it sends the message that those views and stances are not valued in our society. It goes back to those window and mirror books, and readers seeing others’ experiences as well as their own reflected.

We should be living in a world where we are celebrating everyone’s stories — not trying to silence them.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@soundpublishing.com.