Sep. 23—The book display on the first floor of the Beale Memorial library in downtown Bakersfield is decorated with official-looking yellow caution tape and paper "flames."
All the books on the display have a history in the United States of being banned or challenged by those who wanted them removed or restricted.
"They've been flying off the shelves," said Library Associate Fahra Daredia.
When library patrons see titles that some have tried to ban, they want to read them for themselves to find out what's in them that made them so offensive or politically incorrect, she said.
The books include the classic children's book "Ferdinand the Bull," one of the most beloved books in history — but in Nazi Germany, Hitler ordered the book burned, and in some places in America, it was banned.
John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" was banned by Kern County in 1939 after powerful farming interests complained. But it became the largest-selling work of fiction that year and the novel won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. But the American Library Association is reporting a 20-year high in book challenges and attempts to censor books in public and school libraries.
Many on the newer list focus on sexual orientation and gender questions, Daredia said.
One title in that category is "The Princess Boy."
"In the '90s, 'Harry Potter' was banned for witchcraft," she said.
PEN America's first comprehensive look at efforts to ban books throughout the 2021-22 school year concluded that Americans' conception of those attempting to remove books from school libraries and reading lists are parents or others who are "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."
That's not the case, PEN America says.
"The large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern," the organization said. "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."
Many remember in 2006 when a parent of a Kern High School District honors English student sought to have Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" barred from high school classrooms, due to its descriptions of incest and sex.
Then-Superintendent Bill Hatcher instead limited the use of the novel to advanced placement and honors English classes, and required parental notification when the book was assigned.
Jennifer Williams, a library tech with the Bakersfield City School District, was working at Russo's Books at the time — and she remembers the store started selling out of Morrison's novel.
"People wanted to read it and decide for themselves, which I admire," she said. "We sold more copies because of the controversy than when it was an Oprah's Book Club pick."
The irony of that, she said, is if the folks who wanted its removal from high school campuses had their way, nobody would be reading it.
"The greater irony," she said, "is that all of these other people wanted to choose for themselves, an option that they ended up allowing to be taken away from others."
It wasn't mandatory to read Morrison's book, she said. It was one option on a list of books.
Williams said every parent has the right to decide what their children can or cannot read. Parents have the right to guide their children's reading, but parents should not be making decisions for other parents' children.
Ariel Dyer is a reference librarian at Bakersfield College, who is also assisting in the effort by the city of Shafter in partnership with BC, to keep its library branch open.
Dyer helped create a form for book challenges called a "request for reconsideration."
The form is specific. It asks whether the book challenger has actually read the book. It requires the individual to identify specific passages that they consider offensive.
"I see this as an opportunity to reach out and have a conversation," she said.
And who knows what might come of it.
Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.