Librarians Brace for 'Banned Books'

The American Library Association recognizes "Banned Books Week" from Sept. 26 to Oct. 6. Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, discusses books that some people are afraid to talk about, much less read.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we go from searching for free food to searching for banned books. "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Bluest Eye," "Catcher in the Rye," these are all books that have been banned from some school or public library. Hundreds of works, from obscure titles to modern classics, regularly become targets of people who argue that their stories are offensive or inappropriate, particularly for young people. And many of these books tell the lesser known chapters of the American story.

Joining us to talk about banned books week is Loriene Roy. She's the president of the American Library Association. She's been with us before and joins us here again in our Washington studios. Welcome back.

Ms. LORIENE ROY (President, American Library Association): Thank you, Michel. I'm glad to be back.

MARTIN: Well, we are so glad to see you. Why does your organization recognize Banned Books Week? Why do you think it's so important?

Ms. ROY: Well, it's really a week of celebration. It's been celebrated for 26 years, and it's a celebration to really indicate what it is to be an American, what it is to be able to read form a variety of resources and how libraries especially serve as the main source for locating a wide variety of materials.

MARTIN: But it's not celebrating banning books?

Ms. ROY: That's right. We're celebrating those who stand up to banned books, those who keep track of what's going on, and it's a reminder that we have the freedom to read in this country.

MARTIN: What are some of the books that have been banned in various places that you think might surprise some of our listeners?

Ms. ROY: Well, probably the most surprising book might be the Bible as a banned book, in the not two reasons that passed, were people objecting to violent depictions in the Bible. Some of my favorite books have been banned as well. I noticed that "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" was a banned book. And if you watch HBO, which I just sort of caught this television series last week and realized how many Emmy Awards the television version of the book received, you'll realize that banning content is not where we want to go in this country.

Of course, lots of children's books and those that have been classics in families. If you're a fan now of Roald Dahl, as we have been in our family, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach," "Matilda," all have been books that have been challenged in the past.

MARTIN: What is the rationale for banning a book?

Ms. ROY: There are various reasons why someone might object to a book. It could be sexual content. It could be language. It could be depiction of families. I have a book in our house called "The Stupids Step Out." It's just a funny about a funny family, and the objections to that book were that it just showed parents as being sort of stupid. And kids love humor, and sometimes their humor is different than ours. And that's why that book has been a favorite over time, but also somebody objected to it.

MARTIN: Are we talking about books that are taught in schools as opposed to in public libraries? Because you can argue - you can understand why people are more willing to fight over a text that is taught in school. I know in the Washington area, there was recently an argument about one of the Mark Twain texts, one of the classics.

It's a perennial conversation about whether, you know, "Huckleberry Finn" or "Tom Sawyer" ought to be taught because of the liberal use of the N word, the depiction of, you know, one of the main characters for whom the N word is part of its name, and some kids reading this find it very disturbing and emotionally challenging. There's always that argument.

You can understand that, but in a library, nobody is forcing you to take a book out or to check a book out. Nobody is forcing you to read a book. So what's the rationale for telling people that they can't even look at it?

Ms. ROY: Well, people express a concern about a material in different ways. And a lot of times we know this is a well-meaning person who just finds something that they don't agree with in a book. What librarians stand up to is the fact that just because one person might not find a book suitable doesn't mean that that book isn't as suitable for others. But we need to remind the public that not every book is right for every reader, and someone's decision about what they choose not to read is not a decision they should make for others.

MARTIN: One of the books that is frequently targeted for bans, according to the association, is "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison. I'd like to listen to a short clip from the audio version of that book.

(Soundbite of book on tape, "The Bluest Eye")

Ms. RUBY DEE (Actress): (Reading) We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt, just as Pecola's father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth.

MARTIN: That's actress Ruby Dee reading a portion of "The Bluest Eye," which is of course by the Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrision. Loriene, do you find that books that address issues of race are - like those Mark Twain classics we talked about earlier - are more likely to be the target of anxiety?

Ms. ROY: I haven't heard of a study that looks at the qualities of books that tend to be banned, although you will see on the list books that certainly depict and have characters from different culture backgrounds. Several other books by Toni Morrison are also on banned lists. For example, "Beloved" and "Sula." It may be that these are like topics that provoke people, provoke thinking, that are challenging. And in that way, people sometimes are startled by a text. To hear the words, you realize the impact of vocabulary, the impact of a spoken word.

One of the books this year that caused a little bit of nervousness even in libraries was a book called "The Higher Power of Lucky." And it was the award-winning young adult book, a Newberry Award winning book. And on the first page, there is the word scrotum. And I haven't read it, but I've listened to that book in audio. To hear that word resound and reverberate around in the car, but that word is one little piece of a very long and enchanting story.

MARTIN: Why do you say the parents who say that they're concerned about their children having access to inappropriate books in public libraries?

Ms. ROY: Well, (unintelligible) is concerned by parents. And we want our parents to be involved with their children's education. We want them to read with children. Parents have a right to work with their own families on their family reading. But certainly, what one family finds acceptable will not be what another family finds acceptable.

I think this gives librarians a great opportunity to talk with parents about the whole process of how items find their ways into libraries. Librarians have graduate degrees. School librarians have first, a teaching degree. They are either school certified within their state or have a Masters degree. Public librarians have Masters degrees, and that includes extensive coursework in the area we called collection development. Then each local public library or school library will have a selection process and can describe how items are chosen in what ways.

And there's always citizen input. You consider what people are interested in reading. A lot of times, people just want to discuss things with librarians and they want to have a conversation.

MARTIN: But what about people who argue community standards, which is the same argument that people make about other forms of content that distribute it in other ways that they might never like? They say, look you know, public libraries should reflect the community. And if this doesn't comport with the values of the community, it shouldn't be there. What do you say to that?

Ms. ROY: Well, public libraries provide a wide range of opinions and views. And public libraries have boards of trustees, and they are appointed or elected to represent community needs. So, you know, it's a great opportunity to have a discussion with people.

MARTIN: What is your organization doing to recognize Banned Book Week, and how would you like those who might be listening to us to think about that during this week?

Ms. ROY: There is a virtual celebration during Banned Books Week. So people who are on "Second Life," that virtual environment, can attend events, including book discussions. Libraries have exhibits, conversations - I received a letter from Dayton, Ohio inviting me to read in a cage. And I just can't get there, but you can look on the Web cam of the library and actually see the librarians reading banned books.

They also have an image that replicates the American flag, but showing 99 of the top 100 banned books in a color image. And you can scroll over that digital image, see the titles of the books and the authors. And the best way to celebrate a banned book, of course, is to read banned books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Loriene Roy is the president of the American Library Association. She joined us here in the studios in Washington. Thanks for coming.

Ms. ROY: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Come back and see us.

Ms. ROY: I will do that.

MARTIN: And for more on activities connected the Banned Books Week, please go to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

(Soundbite of song, "ABC")

THE JACKSON FIVE (Musical Group): (singing) A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3, as simple do, re, mi, A-B-C, 1-2-3, baby, you and me girl.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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