Their titles are recognizable, the sort of books with dog-eared pages and edges worn from multiple readings.
“The Bluest Eye.” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “The Catcher in the Rye.” “The Color Purple.”
They’re also some of the most frequently challenged books in America.
This week marks the 40th annual Banned Books Week, a national event seeking to educate about censorship in public spaces and celebrate reading all genres, subjects and authors.
Joining libraries and bookstores across America, the Des Moines Public Library has planned a week of programming in honor of banned books, including partnering with Raygun on limited-edition “I Read Banned Books!” T-shirts.
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The annual spotlight on censorship comes as attempts to ban or restrict access to books are on course to exceed the record set in 2021, according to the American Library Association, which has tracked such challenges for more than two decades.
In the first eight months of 2022, there were 681 requests for censorship of 1,651 titles, according to the association, continuing the “sharp rise” in ban attempts over the past two years. And while certain literary classics remain marks for challenges, recent years have seen more targeted campaigns to remove materials about the LGBTQ community, racism, social justice or the personal stories of people of color.
In Iowa, as in many other states, requests to remove books — often by or about people of color or LGBTQ community members — have grabbed headlines and rocked small towns.
The Vinton library closed temporarily when three leaders resigned after facing criticism over the prominent placement of LGBTQ books and being accused of having a liberal agenda for featuring the children’s book, “Joey,” which tells the story of President Joe Biden’s childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania .
Similarly, in 2018, a petition requesting that Orange City’s library segregate LGBTQ content in their collection and stop plans to purchase more caused librarians to revise their classification system. Paul Dorr, pastor of an ultra-evangelical church, later checked out the library’s LGBTQ-focused children’s books and burned them in a video he posted to social media. He was found guilty of fifth-degree criminal mischief and fined $147.75.
Last session, state legislators drafted a bill that would impose criminal penalties, including up to a year in jail, on teachers and librarians who provide “obscene material” to children in schools. Their attempts to advance the law ultimately failed.
Challenges to books spotlighting underrepresented and marginalized groups strip readers “of the chance to explore a world beyond the confines of personal experience,” Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada, the library association’s president, said in a news release.
“Although it’s natural that we want to protect young people from some of life’s more difficult realities, the truth is that banning books does nothing to protect them from dealing with tough issues,” she continued. “Instead, it denies young people resources that can help them deal with the challenges that confront them.”
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Public libraries have long held the line against censorship, a result of the work of former Des Moines library director, Forrest Spaulding, who created the national Library Bill of Rights.
Still a touchstone of intellectual freedom, the document states libraries “are forums for information and ideas” and urges challenging suppression in all its forms, proclaiming “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
While the Des Moines Public Library has not had a book challenged in years, says Tim Paluch, the library’s marketing director, administrators would “stand in opposition to any efforts to censor library materials.”
Library Director Sue Woody affirmed that stance, saying in a statement that “equitable access to information is a basic right for all.”
“As a library, it is our responsibility and duty to uphold this right and challenge those who intend to infringe upon it,” she continued. “Intolerance has been spreading in recent years and the community looks to the library as a bastion of democracy and civility.
“We take that role very seriously and will defend our community’s right to read.”
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How to celebrate Banned Books Week in Des Moines
The Des Moines Public Library will be “celebrating the freedom to read” this week with special partnerships and programming. Here’s what’s on the schedule:
Raygun “Banned Books” T-shirts: The collection features shirts and stickers with the phrase “I Read Banned Books” or “I’m a Rosie Reader,” a nod to the library’s children’s reading mascot, Rosie the Book Monster. Profits will go straight to library programming, supplies and books — not administrative costs or salaries, says Paluch. Visit DMPL.org/banned-books-week for more.
New library card: A limited-edition Banned Books library card will also be available on a first-come, first-served basis for those who sign-up to be library members. Ask your local librarian for more information.
Banned Books online: Watch the Des Moines Public Library’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok for posts on Banned Books past and present.
- Monday: Susan Woody, library director, will host a Q&A about banned and challenged books.
- Tuesday: Learn more about the top 10 most challenged books of 2021.
- Wednesday: Veronica Fowler, the ACLU communications director, joins the library’s podcast.
- Thursday: The library’s staff recommends banned books to read right now.
- Friday: Test your knowledge with a special banned books quiz!
Discussions continue this fall: Respectful, thoughtful analysis of books is welcome, and in an effort to foster discussion around titles in school, the library is partnering with Des Moines Public Schools to give community members a chance to read books on their children’s curriculum. All of the library’s six branches will host Community Reads events this fall featuring school staff and librarians leading conversations around a specific text and its role in the syllabus.
The first book up is “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan, which is being read by DMPS fifth graders. Learn more at DMPL.org/DMPL-DMPS.
Courtney Crowder, the Register’s Iowa Columnist, traverses the state’s 99 counties telling Iowans’ stories. Her grandmother was a librarian. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.