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Fighting the good fight as a school librarian during Banned Books Week

In my suburban high school library this past week, we have displayed books behind fake police tape just to make a point.

A Banned Books Week display in a Franklin Park library in 2007.
Sun-Times file photo

The last week of September brings images of autumn leaves starting to change, high school football games lighting up small towns, and yellow police caution tape lining book displays in libraries and schools.

No, crimes aren’t being committed in libraries, but this last week has been Banned Books Week in America. Educators and librarians across the country have been leading the charge against a fierce enemy: censorship.

In my high school library this past week, we have displayed books behind fake police tape and offered informational pamphlets about Banned Books Week, a movement that began in 1982. Banned Books Week has been a 40-year response by librarians, including school librarians, to a growing number of book challenges and bans. During this week, I have taught lessons about censorship and book bans over the years.

My students are often surprised by the wide range of books that appear behind that yellow police tape, from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (1937) to Jason Reynolds’ and Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped” (2020). Students wonder aloud why some of their favorite books have been banned or challenged in libraries and schools across the country.

The continued relevance of Banned Books Week comes down to simply this: There are still lots of people out there trying to ban or challenge books.

Recently, for example, a slew of new bans and challenges have been urged against books that promote anti-racism and can be connected with Critical Race Theory (CRT) or the New York Times’ 1619 Project. And last week, students in a southern Pennsylvania public high school protested a ban on books and media with anti-racist messages, including a children’s book about Rosa Parks and a “Sesame Street” TV episode about race.

Last week as well, I received emails from school librarian colleagues across Illinois informing me that they had just received Freedom of Information Act requests for information about books written by Ibram Kendi and texts related to the 1619 Project. The requests, relayed to them by school administrators, were from a company called LocalLabs, which claims to be in the business of pressing government agencies for information. But who exactly is asking for that information from LocalLabs remains unclear.

Over the years as a public school librarian, I have had experience in dealing with parents and students who challenged various materials. One year, as a librarian in a Chicago high school, a student asked to be allowed to read a book other than the assigned one, “October Mourning,” which tells the true story of the murder of a young gay man, Matthew Sheperd.

“My parents don’t want me to read it because it’s against my religion,” the student said.

“I understand,” I replied. “The description of his murder is too violent.”

“No, it’s that he was gay,” the student replied. “Homosexuality is against my religion.”

Instead of calling for a parent meeting — a meeting at which I knew I’d likely lose — I helped the student choose another book. It was just easier to do so.

I regret that now. I wish now that I had pushed harder to defend a controversial text. Because when librarians like me fail to fight the good fight in this way, which is what Banned Books Week is all about, it’s the students who lose out. They don’t get to hear and consider the many voices and perspectives that could enrich their lives in so many ways.

This is what books are supposed to do.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in Chicago Public Schools for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

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