National Banned Books Week is underway until Oct. 7 across the nation in order to raise awareness for literature that has been challenged and removed, as well as attempts to limit access to books in libraries, schools and bookstores.
The week-long celebration of First Amendment rights began in 1982, and has seen strong support—and an even stronger relevance—as the years go on, as book bans and challenges have increased across the nation in recent years.
One Nashville bookstore is stepping in support of First Amendment access to information by hosting the Banned Book Wagon on Tuesday: a partnership with PEN America, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Little Free Library and Penguin Random House Publishing.
The wagon will make a stop on its maiden voyage at The Bookstore in East Nashville and give out 500 free copies of 12 commonly-banned books. Titles like "The Kite Runner," "The Handmaid’s Tale" and "The Bluest Eye," along information about censorship, will be given out to customers while supplies last.
The book wagon will be open from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at The Bookshop, located at 1043 W. Eastland Ave, with the shop closing at its normal 7 p.m.
When the wagon runs out of books, it will pack up and head off to its next destination — New Orleans — dropping banned books in Little Free Libraries along the way.
“We at The Bookshop are firm believers in the freedom to read, and have taken a public stance against banned books and challenges throughout the years,” said Joelle Herr, owner of The Bookshop. “Last year for example, when 'Maus' was banned by a rural county here in Tennessee, we shared the information with our customers and our followers and actually held a fundraiser for the Freedom to Read Foundation. We just believe that book bans and book challenges are a slippery slope. It's a dangerous thing. And of course, we want to fight it as best we can.”
The Bookshop is a small oasis for readers in East Nashville — at only 550 square feet, the store holds a limited but carefully curated selection of books for readers. This, Herr said, is why supporting access to banned books for the community is so important.
“All of our books are chosen very carefully . They're all very well written, researched and thoughtfully considered,” she said. “So we’ll be having a book drive component during the event as well. The books offered for free on the wagon will also be for sale in the store. We are going to encourage our customers to purchase one or more to be donated, and we are selecting three different local nonprofits to donate those books too. If customers purchase three banned books for donations to local nonprofits, they will get a free anti-banned books tote bag.”
Carly Gorga, director of brand marketing at Penguin Random House, described the event as just one piece of "doing everything they can" in the face of the rising threat of banned books.
“People who are orchestrating book bans think they’re protecting our children when in reality, they’re narrowing their minds and their worldviews,” she said. “Young people, in particular, need access to a wide range of ideas and perspectives to connect and coexist with one another and be productive members of society. Books build bridges. They open our minds and make our lives better. Why would you deprive kids of this opportunity?”
Banned, removed and challenged books on the rise across the country
The removal and banning of books in libraries and schools has risen drastically in the past few years, dominating headlines and school board meetings alike.
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, a leading organization for the rights of access to literature, reported from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 of this year that there were:
695 attempts to censor library materials and services.
1,915 challenges to unique titles/books that have been singled out to be banned. That’s a 20% increase in unique title objections from the same period in 2022.
The ALA documented 1,269 attempts to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began compiling censorship data more than 20 years ago.
Book challenges in 2022 are nearly double the 729 book objections reported in 2021.
In Tennessee, the fight to limit access to certain books has become a near-constant as the battle between parental oversight and freedom of expression continues to brew.
In May, a bill was passed to tighten the consequences for publishers who publish books with “obscene content” — spurring further book bans and heated debate.
The bill, SB 1059, will open book publishers and distributors to criminal prosecution if they knowingly send “obscene materials” to public schools.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, is Hensley’s second notable bill dealing with limiting book access. In early 2022, he was also at the helm of a controversial bill that would prohibit any library from making “obscene materials or materials harmful to minors” available to students in school libraries, as well as remove the legal exception currently protecting librarians and other school personnel from being charged with a criminal offense over the presence of such materials in libraries.
The bills follow after the passage of last year's controversial book bill that requires each public school library to publish the list of materials in their collections and periodically review them to make sure they are “appropriate for the age and maturity levels of the students who may access the materials.”
The bill, passed along partisan lines, drew concern from teachers across the state when officials advised schools the law should be interpreted broadly and apply to individual classrooms, even though that is not explicitly defined in the law.
A number of books have been pulled from school shelves since the passage of the law.
The USA Today Network - Tennessee's coverage of First Amendment issues is funded through a collaboration between the Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners.
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USA Today contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Banned Books Week: Nashville store to host giveaway as debate heats up