Story by Roger Chambers | Utica Phoenix Columnist
In 1982, a Supreme Court Case known as the Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico addressed First Amendment issues related to the banning of books in a school library. Steven Pico and four other students filed suit to affirm their right to have certain books available at the library, including Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris. Pico won his case at the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was shortly after this that Banned Books Week began.
Usually during September, many libraries and bookstores have special events, focusing on freedom of speech, the First Amendment, and against censorship. On September 19th, Jarvis Library in Rome, NY had a special activity with about 25 participants, celebrating the importance of fighting censorship with the freedom to read what one wants.
Activities included making pins and key chains with imprints of book topics or logos, and “black out poetry.” This involved blacking out all words not wanted in a magazine column, the unblocked words revealing a poem. There was also the opportunity to win a banned book from several provided by the library by tossing it from a frying pan into the “fire” of large illustrations on the floor. The books offered included such classics as “Little Women,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Madeline” — all books facing attempts at banning them from a library at some point in time.
During the hour-long program, the children’s librarian Emily Rundle, read aloud “Auntie and Uncle Drag Queen Hero” and “Hair Love,” two children’s books that have recently been on the list of books that some want banned.
Attempts at banning books that go against the views of some in society has a long history. Many books were banned by the Catholic Church from time-to-time, including writings of Galileo on the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Early writings of Roger Williams in the 1620s were banned in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
This continued through American history. Some of the finest works in American literature have been threatened from time-to-time, including include Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
In recent years, the proposed banning of books has become more pronounced as part of the “culture wars.” Reasons books are challenged often include issues of explicit sexuality activity and abuse, homosexuality, and racism and racial identity. This often focuses on books that are deemed “age inappropriate” for late elementary or middle school students. During this activity at Jarvis, Emily Rundle read aloud two currently challenged books, “Hair Love” by Matthew A. Cherry and “Auntie Uncle Drag Queen Hero” by Ellie Royce and Hanna Chambers.
LGBTQ+ books have especially come under recent attack. In Jamestown, Michigan, a library lost 85% of their funding in a local vote when the library board refused to remove “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and other LGBTQ+ focused books from their shelves. Library Director Amber McLain, who is gay, ultimately resigned after insults and threats by e-mail, accusations of indoctrinating children, and one person came to the library looking for “that pedophile librarian.”
Debbie Mikula, the Executive Director of the Michigan Library Association noted that there could be suggestions for banning many books for many different reasons, including the Bible due to graphic violence. But she said it is unconstitutional and against the First Amendment when one says something like, “I don’t want to read it and you can’t read it either.” In general, a book should not and cannot be banned just because it presents a controversial religious, social, or political viewpoint one does not agree with.
For more adult books, the issues may include questions of “obscenity” in descriptions of an author surviving physical or sexual abuse as a child. Challenged books also include those with unpopular social views, political satire, or historical commentary. Over time this has included such important writers as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Jonathan Swift, Howard Zinn, Shakespeare, and Nobel Literature Prize Winners Toni Morrison and William Faulkner.
The issue of banning books is increasing in many libraries and school board meetings related to the current “culture wars.” However, Jarvis Library director Lisa Matte said there is no major issue locally regarding such issues. There are policies in place if someone comes in objecting to the library having a particular book. However, books purchased by libraries are chosen by librarians who are aware of new books available and want to provide a diversity of viewpoints for their diverse patrons. Matte stated a well-known quote about this issue is, “A good library has something in it to offend everyone.” In that regard, Jarvis Library in Rome is one of many good libraries in the Mid-York Library System.
It is up to all concerned readers to be aware of this issue of banning books and calls for censorship. Support your public and school libraries, and assure that they can continue to provide a truly diverse selection of reading and educational materials for the increasingly diverse society we live in.