Banned Books Week more urgent as book bans increase

Sep. 22—One thousand six hundred and fifty one books have been challenged across the United States in 2022, on pace to break the record set last year.

The challenges take place in public and high school libraries and sometimes bookstores.

The statistics, and the books behind them, are taking center stage as Banned Books Week raises awareness of the increasing challenges to Americans' freedom to access books and information.

Both The Logansport Cass County Public Library, {span}616 E. Broadway,{/span} and the Walton & Tipton Township Library, {span}110 N. Main St,{/span} have set up displays to help educate the public on those threats.

Forty-one percent of modern challenged books tell the stories of non-white people or examine race, according to Pen America, a national nonprofit working to defend free expression. Books focused on telling LGTBQ+ stories are the second most challenged books. However, LGTBQ+ books were ranked in the top three spots in the 2021 list of most challenged books.

The 2022 top banned books list will be released Friday, Sept. 23.

The predominantly Republican state of Texas has banned 713 books from schools this year alone, according to Pen America. Texas made national headlines earlier in the year when Republicans, led by Governor Greg Abbott and State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, sent school districts a list of 850 books that should be removed due to claims of pornography.

Pen America reports that there have been 18 book bans in three school districts in Indiana, the sixth most in the nation.

Overall, eight of the top 10 states with book bans are predominantly Republican. Pennsylvania and New York round out the top 10.

Book banning is nothing new in the United States.

In the past, classic works of literature such as John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Indiana's own Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" have been challenged.

Even "Charlotte's Web" faced ban challenges. The challengers said talking animals were an affront to God.

Local libraries support freedom

Both the Logansport and Walton libraries are recognizing Banned Books Week.

While the libraries are relatively challenge-free, they want to raise awareness of what is happening in other parts of the state and country.

In Walton, teen librarian assistant Jacqueline Dwigans-Merritt has created a display that is covered up — censored — so no one can see what is inside. She also has handouts, stickers and activity sheets that educate about Banned Books Week.

"Reading is pretty important, obviously," she said. "People should be allowed to read anything that interests them and anything they feel they need. That is pretty big for me. That was one of the bigger reasons I wanted to stay in the library world so that people could get the information — and entertainment as well — they wanted and needed, and I don't think anyone should censor that."

Logansport Library Director David Ivey said the library recognizes Banned Books Week each year, but 2022 feels more urgent.

He said that books reflect the culture of the time and what is in the news. Modern book ban attempts in general focused more toward books about the LGTBQ+ community and race. Twenty years ago, the focus was on "Harry Potter."

Both Ivey and Dwigans-Merritt said sexuality was often the top reason for challenging a book.

In his 15 years at the Logansport library, Ivey has experienced a couple of book challenges, and he recalled them both being related to sexual content.

"Being sexually explicit is part of the human experience," he said. "If it's not appropriate for your third grader then you as a parent — that's where you come into play."

Ivey said the library removes books all the time, but many of those removed books are non-fiction and the information within is dated. For example, he said, they would remove a 15-year-old book about diabetes and replace it with one published in 2022.

"Fiction can be dated in its language," he said. "People can be hostile (to a book like "Huckleberry Finn") because of language hostile towards a racial group. But that was the language of their time. Not to defend it, but it was the characters' of that time natural communication mode."

Ivey said the library keeps books like that because the authors are Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winners. He also said the books provide a time capsule of what life was like in the time it was written.

"It's helpful for us to learn now 'that was really hostile towards this group of people.' But you wouldn't know that if you didn't have the story," Ivey said. "You have to be able to go back in time and see what life was like then and reflect upon it from our current time. That's a history lesson in itself — just reading the language of the time."

Libraries are required by the state to have policies in place for challenged books, he said. The first step is to approach a library staff member and voice concerns about the book in question. From there, the concerns will go to library officials who will first check and see if the challenger has actually read the book.

"A lot of people hear things and they get riled up — and a lot of that is going on right now — and yet they have never read the material," Ivey said. "You have to consider what the author is trying to say."

Dwigans-Merritt said that libraries should be diverse and have something that reflects every person's life within reason. She said those who easily find books reflecting their personal experience normally don't have empathy for those who have never seen themselves within a library.

That is one reason Kokomo author Lisa Fipps wrote her young adult book "Starfish." When she was a child she could not find a book in the library with a protagonist who experienced weight issues.

"Having diverse books is important," Dwigans-Merritt said. "Everyone should be able to see themselves in a library collection."

Both Dwigans-Merritt and Ivey encouraged library visitors to approach the staff and tell them when there is a book missing from the library collection that the visitor feels should be there.

Ivey also said the library serves Cass County and wants to hear from a visitor if there is a problem, but at the same time they don't want to eliminate a book that might be valuable to 35,000 other readers in the community.

"If you are pulling Pulitzer Prize winning authors, that is a mistake," he said.

So it goes

Hoosier literary hero Kurt Vonnegut was no stranger to book bans.

In Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, 543 Indiana Ave., is working to keep the author's legacy alive and advocate for the right to read books.

Julia Whitehead, library founder and author of "Breaking Down Vonnegut," said the current attack on books is terrifying.

"It's like nothing I've ever seen in my lifetime," she said. "For us, and other free speech organizations, we feel like our mission is so important right now and our staff is dedicated to making books available to students."

Whitehead said she sees parallels to the 1930s with the increase of anti-Semitism in Indiana, the country and globally in addition to hostility towards other minority groups. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League reported 2,717 incidents directed to Jewish citizens in the country, the most ever since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking in 1979.

"We are just seeing all kinds of poor treatment of people," she said.

Whitehead said that one of the groups most responsible for book challenges is Moms for Liberty. They first arrived on the Vonnegut Library's radar during a book challenge to Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" in Florida. The library responded to the challenge by sending free copies of the book to any students in the county of challenge who wanted to read the book.

Cass County is home to a Moms for Liberty chapter, and its members attend most school board meetings in the area.

In an open letter to Moms for Liberty posted on Twitter on June 6, 2022, Whitehead wrote, "You have misunderstood the meaning of the word 'liberty.' Removing someone else's privilege of reading a book is an act that is worthy of rebellion. But we don't actually have to rebel because these are our rights as Americans. We simply have to help the school officials and elected officials to understand that the Constitution is our law of the land. The whims of one group of moms is not the law of the land."

Whitehead said that "Slaughterhouse-Five" has faced challenges for many different reasons. Some include vulgarity, others sexual content. It's been called anti-Christian. It's also been called anti-American because Vonnegut was protesting war.

"Slaughterhouse-Five" tells the story of a World War II prisoner of war coping with post-traumatic distress disorder, represented as moving back and forth in time and encountering an alien race. Vonnegut was also a prisoner of war while serving during WWII and experienced the Dresden fire bombing. He survived while imprisoned in a slaughterhouse meat locker.

Nov. 11, 2022, marks the 100th anniversary of Vonnegut's birth.

Whitehead said that experiencing the power that comes with banning a book is a big draw to those who challenge texts. She said it's a power that doesn't need to be given to groups like Moms for Liberty who partake in these activities.

"What we are seeing now is sort of a scorched earth approach," she said. "'We're going to ban this number of books — some huge number — in school districts.' That is a lot to deal with. It throws off the democratic process, the dialogue, the things that make us unique and American in all the best ways."