Last semester, I taught my first semester-long class at the community college where I work. Many community colleges offer both credit courses and classes that are for continuing education, workforce training, and recreation — my class was one of these, based on a class that a previous librarian taught.
That librarian presented a series of discussions of literary classics, largely ones that were banned in the 1960s-1980s. When I took over the class, I focused on recent examples of books that have been targeted by book challenges and bans, since that has been a relentless topic in the news. I selected most of my titles from the past few years of ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books lists. I had about 10 students, most of whom were older members of the community from the surrounding county.
I explained the difference between challenges and bans, and we looked at the landscape of book bans in the United States — where challenges take place (mainly school and public libraries) and who initiates them (until recently, individual and small groups of parents). We also discussed how the process to investigate challenges works in different types of libraries and the role that public comment and citizen advocacy can play in resisting book bans and other types of censorship.
By covering titles that are on current lists of challenged books, our conversation felt urgent and relevant to the lives of my students. We talked about the troubling trend of challenging books that feature LGBTQ+ characters or themes, as well as discussions of race and racism.
We began each class period with a discussion of each book’s themes and literary or storytelling merit. When it came time to evaluate the reasons each book was banned, students frequently found these book-ban objections to be cherry-picked and politically motivated.
Respectful debate is possible
In the first class period, we discussed “ground rules” for a civil exchange of ideas in this classroom. I was bracing myself for heated conversation, since we were reading books that addressed sensitive topics. But I found my students to be open-minded and respectful, and that spending time with these characters increased empathy and curiosity about different perspectives. It was gratifying to find that people in a small, safe environment were willing to be vulnerable and open with each other.
It’s OK to over-prepare…
Like any first-time teacher, I over-prepared for this class for sure, but I quickly found a groove. I brought a lot of statistics (thanks to the incredibly detailed reports from PEN America and ALA), which helped contextualize specific examples from different school districts and public libraries in the US. I tried to resist the urge to enthusiastically “info-dump” or guide students toward the conclusions I was entering the classroom with.
…but leave lots of room for where the conversation can go.
I remember for my first class, where we discussed Melissa by Alex Gino (a middle-grade novel about a transgender girl in 4th grade), I expected a lot of questions from my students about gender-affirming healthcare for children and adults. Instead, students honed in on the different types of allies in the book, and a rich discussion emerged on how to be a good ally and make spaces safer wherever we go.
When I first encountered Banned Books Week as a new librarian in 2015, book bans felt like a quaint, relatively nonthreatening relic of history to me. I remember making making simple book displays with imagery of fire or prison bars (lots of red and black construction paper), highlighting the “silly” reasons people challenge books. And I’ve heard critiques of Banned Books Week as being a complacent celebration of individual classics, that takes the focus away from the pressing issue of coordinated censorship attempts going on right now. PEN America’s Banned Books 2022 report sums it up well:
Many Americans may conceive of challenges to books in schools in terms of reactive parents, or those simply concerned after thumbing through a paperback in their child’s knapsack or hearing a surprising question about a novel raised by their child at the dinner table. However, the large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern. Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Ban Books
The banned books game has changed, and it’s more important now than ever for librarians and library users to be able to clearly articulate just what is so harmful about this phenomenon. Even in academia, where we are more confident in our academic freedom of speech, we need to be vigilant about the right to read. It’s an issue of democracy, diversity, and freedom for all of us.
I adapted this excellent Bookriot article into a one-page handout with specifics on how community members can resist book bans and other censorship attempts on a local level: Combating Censorship in Your Community. Please feel free to continue to adapt and share this resource if it is relevant to your academic library!