Banned Books Week Off to a Fast Start

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The American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, and the other sponsors of Banned Books Week announced the start of the annual celebration of the freedom to read by sending a message on Monday, September 26, to more than 1.6 million of their supporters on Facebook and Twitter. The groups, which sent their message using the “crowdspeaking” platform Thunderclap, urged their supporters to share it with their friends on social media.

On Tuesday, September 27, seven prominent bookstores presented a Night of Silenced Voices featuring events focusing attention on the growing number of challenges to diverse books, the theme of this year’s celebration. More than half of the hundreds of books that are banned or challenged in schools and libraries each year are written by authors of color, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. A slideshow of some of the titles that are most frequently challenged because of their diversity can be viewed here.

At the same time, more than 500 bookstores and hundreds of libraries were promoting Banned Books Week with displays of banned and challenged titles. Early reports from booksellers were enthusiastic. “Our front window is getting lots of buzz around town,” Roger Cottingham, the community relations manager for Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colorado, reported. On Sunday, September 25, the first day of Banned Books Week, Maria’s hosted an event that invited high school students to discuss censorship. Meghan Doenges, a store staff member, also published an op-ed on the subject in the Durango Herald.

American Booksellers for Free Expression is urging all participating bookstores to share photos of their displays and events using the official hashtag #BannedBooksWeek, as well as to send a description of their activities to abfe@bookweb.org.

The bookstores that participated in the Night of Silenced Voices organized a variety of events, including author readings, panel discussions, and open mic events that featured readings by audience members.

At Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City, Daniel José Older, Ibi Zoboi, Taran Matharu, Tiffany D. Jackson, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, Gabby Rivera, Mariela Regalado, and Sydney Valerio were the celebrity readers during an open mic event, which was attended by 60 people.

“It was a wonderful night,” Maggie Jacoby, the coordinator of Banned Books Week, reported. “The authors — and audience — had a blast. The authors read from their works and spoke about the importance of access to books written from diverse perspectives. Gabby Rivera, author of Juliet Takes a Breath, remarked that challenging or banning a book was more than just about the book itself. ‘They [in effect] ban people. They ban us,’ she said.”

A video excerpt of Daniel José Older speaking at the Housing Works event is available here.

At Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, authors Cory Doctrow, Cathy Camper, M.K. Reed, and Jonathan Hill joined Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, in a discussion moderated by Candace Morgan, coordinator of Celebrate the Freedom to Read in Oregon. The event was filmed for later broadcast on Book-TV.

“Candace Morgan of the Oregon ACLU moderated a lively panel of authors and activists,” reported Brownstein, the chair of the 2016 Banned Books Week Coalition.

Brownstein added: “Cory Doctorow told how he worked with his publisher and members of the free speech community to provide students with access to his novel Little Brother when it was the subject of a summer reading ban in Florida. Librarian and author Cathy Camper discussed how diverse communities are becoming more visible in books and how that increase creates a sense of vulnerability in some communities that the escapist space they had formerly turned to is being filled by the ‘other.’ Jonathan Hill, co-author of the graphic novel Americus, which dramatized a book ban, added that, while discomfort at the arrival of the other in communities through books is often a cause for some to challenge, it is also a call to understanding and inclusion if communities can join together to discuss their concerns and see each other not as characters or ideas, but as neighbors.”

In Los Angeles, the Skylight Books Banned Books Week open mic event, featuring Steph Cha, Natashia Deon, and Chris Terry, “was a lot of fun,” declared Kelsey Nolan, the store’s assistant events manager. The authors read from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Invisible Man, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Heather Has Two Mommies, I Am Jazz, and Running With Scissors.

The store also featured a “Blind Date With a Banned Book” display that invited customers to choose among books in brown wrappers that included only information about why that particular book had been banned.

At Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, customers participated in a reading of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, one of the 10 most frequently challenged books in 2015. Gillian Silverman, a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Colorado, Denver, led a discussion of the book.

“Dr. Silverman led the group in a discussion of the reasons Fun Home is often challenged, especially on college campuses, and talked about the artistry and quality that separates Fun Home from pornography (as it’s often referred to),” Sierra Hale, a bookseller and floor manager at Tattered Cover, said. Guests also discussed their own experiences with book bannings and expressed surprise at how many well-known literary works are challenged.

 At Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, Chantel Acevedo, Edwidge Danticat, Patricia Engel, and M. Evelina Galang participated in an open mic event. The event was also streamed on the bookstore’s website.

Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, observed, “As each author reflected the diversity that is Miami, having immigrant backgrounds, it was extremely poignant to hear them discuss their own sense of commitment to making sure that the sanctity of First Amendment freedoms is ensured and express their outrage at those books that have been challenged. They gave beautiful readings from their selected books and they emboldened members of the audience to read from challenged books that have meant so much to each of them. All of this spurred some wonderful informal discussion following the formal event.”

Video excerpts of the Books & Books event are available on the store’s Facebook page.

At Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., Politics & Prose Bookstore presented a discussion featuring Deb Heard of the Hurston/Wright Foundation and Dana Williams, a professor of African American literature at Howard University.

“At our Night of Silenced Voices, we had an audience that wanted to talk,” Lily Taylor of Politics and Prose reported. “Our speakers, Deb Heard and Dana Williams, described the banned books they love best, then opened the floor to questions ranging from why the Bible is so often banned to how best to help children tackle complex topics. ‘If a child is interested in a book,’ Heard said, ‘read it first, then read it with them.’”

At The Book Cellar in Chicago, local authors joined customers in an open mic event that included a banned books trivia contest. “We had a fun, intimate gathering of authors and readers for what felt like a celebration of the power of books to move us, either in laughter or in tears or in our sense of each other,” bookseller and event specialist Rebekah Putera reported.

Two Banned Books Week sponsors released supporting material on Monday: PEN America issued a report on the current state of book banning in the United States, Missing From the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature. The National Coalition Against Censorship produced a color flier that explains the importance of fighting book banning.