Banned Books Week Celebrations Underway

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The 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week is underway, and booksellers have been busy celebrating the freedom to read by creating displays, engaging customers in censorship conversations, and participating in the read-out of banned books on YouTube, organized by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the American Library Association.

For Shawn Wathen and Mara Lynn Luther, co-owners of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana, Banned Books Week is the single most important advocacy event in their store.

“Nothing else, aside from a local challenge to a book or books — which we have also had in our community — is such a stark reminder that ideas and stories, in the form of the book, always need defending,” said Wathen.  “Each year, well-read, intelligent people come into our store, only to be shocked that people still advocate the censoring of books. They wrongly assume that only totalitarian societies seek the banning of books.”

Each year, to raise awareness and present censorship as an ever-present danger, Chapter One creates a large window display of books that have been banned or challenged, along with the reason why the title was perceived as “dangerous,” beside a copy of the First Amendment.

This year, the store added a second display to further illustrate the concept of banning literature: a burlap cloth covering a mound of books, complete with chains and a sign that reads ‘Forbidden.’”

To recognize the 30th Banned Books Week, Chapter One is selecting a banned title each day, wrapping it in yellow tape, and offering it to customers for 30 percent off.

“Customers are usually shocked or skeptical, but this provides the perfect opening to engage them in conversation about censorship, and hopefully educate them as well,” said Wathen. ”On occasion, they will become incensed that someone would tell them what they should or should not read.” 

When it came time to film a video for ABFFE’s read-out, Wathen’s son Brendan had just finished reading Catcher in the Rye. “The book made such an impact on him, on both an intellectual and an emotional level,” said Wathen, “that despite having read a substantial number of banned books, Catcher was the one. The fact that someone would seek to deprive a reader of this experience is unconscionable.”

At Vintage Books in Vancouver, Washington, owner Becky Milner has created several displays and is continuing to spread the word about the danger of banning books through Facebook, and to several curious customers, who have requested a more complete list of banned titles.

“Folks are surprised, which is always positive,” said Milner. They’ll look at the table and say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve read this and this and… why was this banned or restricted?’

“And, of course, the displays always sell books. We all love the freedom to make our own choices.”

Vintage buyer Debbie Buck participated in this year’s Banned Book read-out by performing an excerpt from It Came From Beneath the Sink, a book that is part of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumpsseries, one of the most challenged collection of books in the ‘90s. “The series is really popular and hard to keep in stock right now,” said Buck. “Goosebumps gets kids to read, and if some parents had their way, the books would no longer be available.  My focus is on the kids’ books, so I wanted to choose a children’s book.”

“No matter how big or small, how much effort you can put into it, creating a Banned Book display, putting up posters or signs, inviting folks to do videos, it all opens communication and helps keep readers local,” said Milner.

John Waters is one of the many authors to participate in the Banned Books read-out at City Lights.

City Lights in San Francisco, California, has turned its Banned Books Week plans into a month-long celebration, said Stacey Lewis, the store’s director of publicity and marketing.

For the BBW read-out, City Lights asked some of the store’s favorite local people — including authors, artists, publishers, journalists, and museum directors — to come and share an excerpt from their favorite banned book.

“When we initially sent out invitations to participate, most people responded excitedly saying they were very honored to be asked to take part, so we were encouraged, and realized that we could keep this thing going beyond Banned Books Week,” said Lewis. “Thus, our celebration of Banned Books Week all month long was born!”

 City Lights is featuring a different reader every day on the store’s blog during the entire month of October. The store also posted a reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights founder and a long-standing advocate for free speech. In the video, Ferlinghetti reads from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Also this year, City Lights is featuring titles that the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona essentially banned when the school suspended its Ethnic Studies program last December in an effort to ban classes that encourage the overthrow of the government, promote ethnic solidarity, or treat students as members of groups rather than individuals. “The books used in their Ethnic Studies and Mexican American Studies program were boxed up and are now headed for an uncertain future given that the district terminated those courses,” said Lewis.

“It’s a natural fit for independent booksellers to recognize and celebrate Banned Books Week given that many stores champion voices that are deemed by some to be controversial or challenging, and do not have to answer to a corporate board regarding what books they choose to sell,” Lewis added. “And, City Lights’ own part in the history of protecting free speech — with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication and successful defense of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl — stands as a landmark reminder of the crucial role booksellers and publishers have in making alternative, contrarian, and sometimes unpopular viewpoints available to a mass audience.”