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Menlo Park Library Celebrates Banned Books Week

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Across the nation, various books are under attack in school districts and public libraries. On October 3rd, the Menlo Park Library held an event in honor of Banned Books Week.

Librarians took turns reading books, explaining why they were disputed and providing statistics on the bans. They spotlighted several books, including Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel reflecting on the author’s journey of self-discovery, and And Tango Makes Three, a picture book by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson based on a true story about the union of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo. Gender Queer: A Memoir was the most challenged book of 2022—it has been banned in over 50 school districts. An overwhelming majority of new books challenged since 2021 were written by or about LGBTQIA+ people and people of color.

Introducing Bless Me, Ultima

Menlo Park librarian Briena Johnson read a passage from Bless Me, Ultima. The semi-autobiographical novel by Rudolfo Anaya centers on a young boy’s spiritual journey and incorporates elements of religion and culture within the Chicano community. “It is the only book by a Latino author that I was required to read in school, and I remember having such interesting discussions afterwards in English class about it,” Johnson said. Copies of the book were burned in New Mexico, the state where the story is set in, and legislation was drafted in Arizona accusing the book of inciting resentment between races.

Speak, a novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, focuses on a high school freshman girl’s experiences following a sexual assault at a party. Iris Keenan, a librarian who read aloud a jarring passage from the story, said, “I read Speak as a kid and it really opened my eyes to how difficult it can be to go through something like this. It’s just not something we talked about.” Speak has been challenged for being sexually explicit and frequently appears on the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual list of most banned books.

Keenan said, “It’s so important to make sure information is free to people and easy to access. Censoring books, challenging them, making them difficult to read, cuts people off from vital information.”

John Weaver, the event’s organizer, said, “It’s scary when you look at the statistics over the years and how [book bans] have really been spiking, especially in the last five years or so.” 

“It’s so important to make sure information is free to people and easy to access. Censoring books, challenging them, making them difficult to read, cuts people off from vital information.”

Banned Books Week began in 1982 following a Supreme Court case ruling which limited the power of public schools to ban books based on content. The theme for this year’s Banned Books Week, which is organized by the ALA and runs from October 1-7, is “Let Freedom Read!”. 

“The banning of books doesn’t just hurt the specific books that are being banned. Books aren’t going to be written because people are going to be worried about not being published or promoted,” said Johnson.

A displaying honoring banned books in M-A’s library.

The movement to ban books has existed for decades. Originally, concerned parents led the movement in their local school districts. Now, it is spearheaded by groups that are prioritizing restrictive state legislation. “It used to be a parent complaining about a book that they didn’t want their child to read in school, but over the last several years, it’s been more like a concerted effort. Schools and libraries get whole lists of books that they want banned,” Weaver said. 

“It’s a regional and even a library-specific thing. Depending on your community, a book might be banned at one place, challenged in a different place, and totally acceptable somewhere else,” said Cat Burton-Tilson, M-A’s librarian.

California recently prohibited banning textbooks based on descriptions of race or gender in addition to a 2011 mandate requiring LGBT history to be taught in schools. In the rest of the country, however, there has been a surge in both challenges and bans to different books. Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania account for the majority of these. 

“It’s better to have a person’s first-hand experience as opposed to having someone else giving you their viewpoints on the material,” said Burton-Tilson.

In advice to students concerned about book bans, Johnson said, “Read the banned books that are not as well known, books that people might be afraid to recommend.”

“Write letters to the editor; speak out and write to politicians. Activism is always good no matter what side you fall on,” Weaver said. 

An exhibition in the Menlo Park Library’s main room shares information from the ALA on book bans and will be up until Sunday. Find more information on events at the library here.

Allegra Hoddie is a junior in her first year of journalism. She enjoys covering current events and the arts. She also makes Instagram posts, drinks lattes, and copyedits.

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