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Wave of book bans strikes U.S. How Washington librarians and book lovers are responding

Library librarians
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Photo courtesy of Sara Strite

Sara Strite says she would rather not stand in front of Kent School District headquarters in the rain at 7 a.m.

But she'll do it if it means keeping books in school libraries.

Strite is part of a group of parents, educators, and community members that have pushed district officials to examine a school official's decision to break protocol and remove two LGBTQ+ books from Cedar Heights Middle School's library.

In early December, the principal at Cedar Heights removed the young adult novels Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen and If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, after a student brought the books to her attention.

After a challenge from Cedar Heights Librarian Gavin Downing, with support from activists like Strite, the books have been returned to the shelves. As of January 9, the district is no longer reviewing the books.

"I fully embrace that there is a process to challenge books. I do believe though that library books are a personal choice that students make, " Strite said. "And that representation — especially LGBT representation — is important in school libraries."

"I'm not a librarian. I am not even a parent of a child at the school district. I'm just a citizen that wants to be sure that there are different voices in libraries. Our libraries are underfunded, our librarians are very stressed. I think the goal should be to have as many books as possible if they are deemed age appropriate by the professionals, by the ALA, by the people whose job it is to vet books."

Although the books are back on the shelves, Strite says this isn't a cased closed situation. The Cedar Heights student who reached out to the principal initially could still file a new challenge, and according to Strite, as of January 10, there is now a parent within the school district that is also challenging Jack of Hearts.

"The Kent case needs to show other school districts that policies need to be reviewed or updated because book challenges aren't stopping. They're not slowing down at all," Strite said.

So where does that leave our librarians?

The American Library Association has noted a "dramatic uptick" in book challenges in 2021. A book challenge is when someone has filed a complaint in order to ban a book. Each report can contain multiple books. Between September and December 2021, the ALA reportedly received 330 challenge reports. The number is expected to be higher when the full year is counted. To put that in perspective, the ALA documented 156 challenges in all of 2020.

Ultimately, librarians are at the center of this conflict.

When a school administration, politicians, and members of the public spar over what appears on library shelves, librarians are expected to navigate the controversy and carry out policy.

Brianna Hoffman, the executive director of the Washington Library Association and a certified librarian, says it's "mind boggling" to watch the efforts some will go to in order to remove books from libraries.

"You can look at the American Library Association and the number of formal and informal complaints that have come out. Just since June of last year, there have been over 150 challenges. And there's more now," Hoffman said.

The Washington Library Association doesn't get a report of every book challenge across the state, according to Hoffman. That scarcity in data regarding when and where books are being challenged or removed from school libraries makes it difficult for the organization to track larger trends, but informal tracking suggests book challenges in Washington state have increased.

"It feels like the temperatures rising on everything, whether it's misinformation, health information, politically ... so unfortunately, libraries are getting pulled into that as well," Hoffman said.

In cases like Cedar Heights and in Tennessee, some parents have voiced support in favor of removing books due to mature content. Not every book may be right for every person, but Hoffman feels readers should have the opportunity to make a choice.

"There's going to be somebody out there that that book is right for," Hoffman said. "Having it on the shelf and having access to it, as dramatic as it might sound, being able to go into a library and pick up that book might change their life."

One person who knows about the power books have to change a young person's life is Kit DeForge. They're a teen specialist with the Pierce County Library System, and specialize in comic books and graphic novels.

In Tennessee, a school board voted unanimously to remove the graphic novel Maus from its curriculum over objections surrounding the use of curse words and nude imagery. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman, Maus details the experience of the author's father as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust.

DeForge worries that by removing graphic novels like Maus from libraries, students are missing out on a powerful reading experience.

"I think that when we see comic book challenges, in particular, what people are more sensitive about is the static image. Comic book censorship and graphic novel censorship seems to have more of an intensive emotional drive with people, because of the way that the image sticks in a person's mind," DeForge said. "Graphic novels are very, very powerful as a medium and communicating complex ideas like those presented in Maus."

But beyond trying to address concerns around the content in certain graphic novels, DeForge says they often have to navigate conversations with parents who aren't so excited in general that their child is reading a graphic novel.

"I have to have the gentle conversation of 'This is a way in. This is a way to introduce concepts to teens into children that might otherwise not get the education the cultural education that they need on some of these subjects," DeForge said.

"I frequently make the joke that 'You have dinner, and sometimes you have popcorn.' And that usually is something that helps a parent understand that the mere enjoyment, the mere act of enjoying the act of reading is just as critical in developing good reading habits."

Even parents who are against book removals or bans may still be concerned about their child accessing books that may be too mature for them for their age.

Brianna Hoffman with the WLA recommends that parents in those situations take an active role in their child's reading experience, before jumping to remove a book.

"Talk to your kids, ask them what they're reading; read with them. Talk to the librarian, talk to the librarian at your child's school; talk to your child's English teacher at the school," Hoffman said. "Take an interest in what they're reading and what they're choosing, and also be supportive of their choice."

Editor's note: Kit DeForge is a teen specialist with the Pierce County Library System. Their experience and opinions are not representative of Pierce County Library as a whole.

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