From Florida to California, school and public libraries, bookstores, and community organizations are gearing up to celebrate the freedom to read by commemorating Banned Books Week (BBW), taking place from September 27 to October 3. Read-alouds, read-a-thons, role plays, a poetry slam, strolling costumed characters from banned books, author events, and mounted displays are just some of the ways 2015 BBW events will heighten awareness about censorship.
This year’s BBW will celebrate books geared for teens. “Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book,” says Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee. On the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2014, six were books for teens, including the National Book Award winner The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007) by Sherman Alexie and the graphic novel Drama by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic, 2012).
Shelves of banned books wrapped in bright yellow tape marked “Caution!” are on display at the library at Murray Hill School, a middle school in Laurel, MD, thanks to the handiwork of school librarian Gwyneth Jones. Each of the books is covered with brown paper, marked “banned” and strategically torn to reveal a portion of each title.
“Banned books are a hot thing with middle-schoolers,” says Jones. “All you have to do is tell middle-schoolers you can’t do something, and they want to do it.” Jones, who blogs at “The Daring Librarian,” will “get on her high horse” and “use her teacher/librarian authoritative voice” and say to her students, “When I hear about banned books, books that are inappropriate or too violent that have been taken off the library shelves across the country…I buy them for you!”
studying intellectual freedom with students
Jones plans to host informal “lunch bunch” conversations and booktalks for students on such books as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, (Pantheon, 1974) as she has done for many years during BBW. When students ask, “Why was this book banned?” she’ll fire back “Why do you think it was banned?” and so begins the discussion.
Leslie Preddy, school librarian at Perry Meridian Middle School in Indianapolis, IN, and president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), is working with eighth-grade students this year on an in-depth study of intellectual freedom. Students are learning about the history of BBW, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the First Amendment. They’re examining online challenge report forms and analyzing banned books they are familiar with, such as Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” (Scholastic) and Gennifer Choldenko’s “Al Capone at Alcatraz” (Dial) series to figure out what makes them controversial.
English and social studies classes at Silver Creek High School in Longmont, CO, under the guidance of teacher librarian Phil Goerner, will engage in role play, taking the parts of community members, librarians, and students discussing the banning of books, such as Robie Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal (Candlewick, 1994), which was challenged recently at a nearby public library, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. They’ll also analyze First Amendment rights and the importance of intellectual freedom. A poetry slam, where students will write poems and rants against censorship, is in the works. Also up for discussion will be the recent news story about Tennessee parent Jackie Sims, who successfully excused her son from being required to read the nonfiction title The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010) by science reporter Rebecca Skoot. Sims is trying to get it banned from Knoxville schools because she claimed it contained “pornographic” material.
Banned websites awareness and a costumed read-a-thon
At the New Canaan (CT) High School library, school librarian Michelle Luhtala will make use of the new maker space and have students print out book covers of banned books to create a collage. She’ll encourage her students to discuss why these books were banned. Luhtala, along with Doug Johnson and Joyce Valenza, recently led a webinar for library professionals on the topic of intellectual freedom and banned websites. They are also busy promoting Banned Websites Awareness Day, which will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 30, and conducting a survey of Internet filtering practices as part of BBW to bring awareness to the issue of over-filtering websites in schools. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL), along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom to Read Foundation, and the National Council of Teachers of English, among other organizations, are cosponsors.
“It’s an issue of equity,” says Luhtala. “Urban districts are the most heavily filtered and this practice contributes to the growing digital divide.” Digital citizenship is hard to teach, she says, when students don’t have access to all the tools. “It’s also an issue of intellectual freedom,” she adds, “which is why we’re highlighting it during Banned Books Week.”
The San Diego (CA) Public Library is partnering with the San Diego Costume Guild to present the fourth annual All Day Read-Aloud Read-a-thon on Friday, October 2, in the Garden Courtyard of the San Diego Central Library. Librarians, teen and adult volunteers, and special guests from the Costume Guild will dress up as characters from “Harry Potter,” Alice in Wonderland, and other favorite challenged books will be reading aloud from banned books.
Citizens in Duval and St. Johns counties in Florida are coming together for a series of events scheduled during BBW and throughout the year under the banner “BANNED: Censorship and Free Speech. A community conversation.” Considering books, art, film, or theater, the organizers are focusing on whether censorship is ever the right course of action. Publicized through their Facebook page, BANNED will kick off with the Express Yourself! Festival, a special banned book launch on September 27 that will include hands-on activities, book give-aways and a book character contest at Hemming Park in Jacksonville.
In cyberspace, for the fifth year, readers from around the world can participate in the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out. Participants are invited to create videos proclaiming the virtues of the freedom to read and post them to a dedicated YouTube channel.
BBW began in 1982, when there were a number of challenges to certain books appearing in libraries, schools and bookstores. Reasons often used for challenging books are that they are sexually explicit, unsuitable for a certain age group, anti-family or employ offensive language. Since the inception of BBW more than 11,300 books have been challenged, according to ALA. With communities jumping on and creating their own events, BBW―now jointly sponsored by a number of national organizations and spearheaded by a national committee―has continued as an annual event ever since.
Lisa Rosenthal is a freelance education journalist based in Burlingame, CA.