David Payne: Welcome to Library Matters with our host David Payne.
Julie Dina: And I'm Julie Dina.
David Payne: And for today's episode, we're going to be delving into the fascinating world of banned books. Why banned books? Well, because in the public library world, one of the highlights of September is Banned Book Week. And here to tell us and share their passion and interest for banned books are two of our librarians from the MCPL system, Danielle Deaver, who is the young adult librarian at Germantown. Welcome Danielle.
Danielle Deaver: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
David Payne: And from Olney Library, we welcome Alessandro Russo, who is the Senior Librarian there. Welcome Alessandro.
Alessandro Russo: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
David Payne: And um, Danielle, you've had some experience with banned books displays at Germantown?
Danielle Deaver: Yes, I have. We do banned book displays in our adult and children's sections. And this year I got to do the one in the adult section.
David Payne: That's great. And Alessandro you were telling me earlier your rebellious nature attracted you to the field of banned books?
Alessandro Russo: Yes, I believe it was when I started as a volunteer and they told me I wasn't allowed to read certain books that I was like, "Hey, I'm going to do completely opposite and I'm going to read these books."
David Payne: That's great. That's great. Well, let's start by looking at band book next week and asking you both, what's the purpose of banned books week, if I start with Danielle?
Danielle Deaver: Sure. Well, I think the purpose is basically to draw attention to the fact that all over the country every day, books are being challenged by people and even banned by library system, school systems and other -- and government agencies. And I kind of, though it had existed forever, but I found out today that it started in the early 1980s when book challenges started becoming more common.
David Payne: And you mentioned it started -- We will go back to 19, the 1980s. Do you think that over time since then it's attracted more and more interest?
Danielle Deaver: Oh, I think it definitely has. It's become, sort of, something that you see merchandised now where you can actually buy bags that have banned book titles on them. And I think it's become, you know, something that is kind of starting to attract a lot of attention and popular culture.
Alessandro Russo: And as you know, social media and it becomes more available and to see, you know, and to track news and information. I think people are getting a better understanding of what banned books are and why kind of this movement is growing in a sense.
Julie Dina: Well, since we're talking about banned books, when exactly is Banned Book Week and more importantly, how does MCPL participate in banned books week, Alessandro?
Alessandro Russo: Banned books week is from September 23rd to September 29th. And just in general, I believe our system, we do a great job in displaying banned books and kind of adding a little literature to explaining what banned books are. And we actually, I know they're doing a story time at Gaithersburg Library with a banned book.
Julie Dina: Danielle, did you have anything to add?
Danielle Deaver: No, I mean we do the displays and it actually generates a lot of conversation. We had a little girl today who came in and said, you know, "What's a banned book?" And her mother actually said, "Well, let's go over and look at them and I will tell you about that." So that was, that was really nice.
David Payne: So, I think we should, we should clarify for our listeners, Banned Books Week is actually a national event I think. Is it from the American Library Association?
Alessandro Russo: Yes, yeah.
David Payne: Can you tell us, really talk about banned books and challenged books and there's a difference between the two. Can you explain what, what the difference is Alessandro?
Alessandro Russo: So challenged book is basically presenting the question of why are we going to remove this book from a collection or why are we going to censor this book? And then, a banned book is actually if the verdict get passed by whoever saying we are officially pulling this book from the stack or the collection. So the easiest way to look at it is a challenged book is phase one and then if it goes further, phase two, is the banned book, so.
Danielle Deaver: And we actually only see a small snapshot of what it's challenged around the country. The American Library Association tracked 416 books that were challenged or banned in 2017, but 82% to 97% of book challenges are never reported to organizations that track such things. So there are probably a lot of challenges and even bans yes, going on.
Julie Dina: So what would you say is MCPL's policy regarding book challenges and has MCPL ever banned a book?
Danielle Deaver: Well, I asked around about this and people who have been here much longer than I have say that in their institutional memory, about 30 years, they have not seen or heard of any books being banned from MCPL.
Alessandro Russo: So it's actually in MCPL collection policy on page 10 section 4, Intellectual Freedom. It's, and there is -- I'll just quickly go for what we're looking for. The statement pertains to all formation formats, including print, video, audio, digital, and electronic formats. "Libraries assure that the collection is open and accessible to all residents. It is committed to well-balanced print electronic and electronic collection, which presents various points of views on all subjects, controversial or not. Libraries do not remove, restrict, or withdraw materials because they are regarded as discriminatory or inflammatory by an individual or group."
David Payne: And there you have it.
Alessandro Russo: Yes.
David Payne: So, looking at the lists over the years of banned books and challenged books, obviously a great diversity in amongst the titles that fall into that category. But what are the think of any, of the strangest reasons that you've come across for banning a book? Let's start with you Alessandro.
Alessandro Russo: My favorite is a cultism or Satanic worship, which in particular, the example was any -- the Harry Potter series when they came out and it's that kind of just an interesting way to read that book as many people read it in a completely different way. But yeah.
Danielle Deaver: The strangest reasons I found were in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee wanted to ban Anne Frank's diary of a young girl because it was "A real downer."
Julie Dina: Wow.
Danielle Deaver: Yes. And in 1987, school officials in Alaska tried to, or actually did ban the American heritage dictionary because it used slang terms such as "bed," "knocker," and "balls." So they just banned the dictionary.
Julie Dina: Okay.
David Payne: Okay. On that note.
Julie Dina: On that note, now can you tell us about what are the most common reasons for challenging or banning books?
Danielle Deaver: Sure. Officially, the top three are that the material is considered to be sexually explicit, to contain offensive language or be unsuited to age group and most people who bring book challenges are parents. But a lot of people have started noticing and writing about lately the fact that a lot of the books that are being challenged and banned are books that feature diverse characters, diverse, you know -- or are written by diverse authors. And in 2015, nine of the top 10 challenged books included diverse content. They were about, you know, transgender teens, they were about LGBTQ characters. And so, that's a disturbing trend that's kind of not officially on the radar.
Julie Dina: Why do you think those are the most common ones or are the top three that keep popping up?
Danielle Deaver: Well, Professor Emily Knox in Illinois researched this topic. She looked at the ALA's annual top 10 challenged book lists from 2001 to 2015, and 29 diverse books appeared a total of 63 times on the list. And they were all -- a lot of them actually said that they were in question because they depicted racism such as, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, the Absolute True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. And, you know, she kind of brings up the fact that, you know, this is -- these books are being challenged for being about diversity implies that the topic of diversity itself is inherently wrong or controversial, which is of course, you know, extremely disturbing.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah. It's kind of like that overall discussion. Actually, I had a discussion with a colleague of mine the other day about should classics be banned because they are written in a different time period. And so, someone reading that nowadays without any kind of prior knowledge can read it as being offensive or you know, racial. But both of our curt collusions came, it's kind of like learning about history, if you kind of censor that part of history, that way of writing, how will you learn about the present and the future?
David Payne: Right. So can I ask you both to give us some examples of some recently banned, banned books? Let's start with Danielle.
Danielle Deaver: Okay, 13 Reasons Why is a teen book by Jay Asher that was made into a Netflix movie earlier this year. And that has been -- that was the number one banned book in or challenged book in 2017 because of the discussion and the themes about suicide. The book Drama, which is a children's book, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier, that is immensely popular in our library and I think all over the system, was challenged -- and it's also won a lot of awards. And it was challenged and banned in school libraries because it includes LGBT characters and was considered confusing.
And the other one that was kind of upsetting because I loved this book, was The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. And that's one of those books that has really drawn in even teenagers who don't particularly like to read. It shows a side of the controversies over police shootings of black unarmed teenagers that we don't often see and that's the impact on the community. And that book will also be a movie in a couple of weeks. And that was challenged because it's drug use, profanity, and offensive language. So that's just kind of a snapshot.
Alessandro Russo: And then one that has made the list of, since 2007 is one of, one of my favorite young adult books is the Absolute True Diary of a Part-time Indian, written by Sherman Alexie. And the, the, the reason why it keeps, it's getting challenged are you know, poverty, alcoholism, sexuality. Even though the book won a national book award, was a national book award winner, and I thought it was a -- even though it's fiction, it was a great look into living on a reservation life and kind of like the reality's a person would face day-to-day as a, especially as a teenager's point of, perspective. One of my other favorite classics that have historically been banned is Catcher in the Rye. And if anyone who read it knows the profanity and how many times the "F" word comes up in that book.
Danielle Deaver: I think it's a good book.
Alessandro Russo: But it's so -- I love it because it's so crude and it's so real, like it's just a teenager skipping school one day and doing what he has to do, you know.
Julie Dina: Yeah, but that's not you.
Alessandro Russo: No, I was the good teen.
Julie Dina: We could tell.
David Payne: So really when it comes to, to, to banned books across the whole spectrum, really we're looking at children's books as much as adult books as much as young adult books.
Alessandro Russo: Oh yeah.
David Payne: Is that correct?
Danielle Deaver: Yes. Yeah. Where the Wild Things Are, was challenged and banned when it first came out because the characters were imaginary, which some people thought I believe would be somewhat occult like. And the -- also it was just, it was very real at a time when most picture books and children's books depicted children as being, you know, good little boys and girls. These kid's, you know, hammering nails into walls and chasing the dog and running off to bed and being punished and they just didn't want to deal with it.
Julie Dina: Well, now that you've listed examples of recently banned books, can you tell us which book actually tops many of the banned book list? Let's start with you, Danielle.
Danielle Deaver: Honestly, I could not find one clear winner, not over all the years. The classics come up time and time again. Let's see, Harry Potter was challenged more than 3000 times, although it fell off the list in like the early 2000s. And Judy Bloom, who writes books for, I guess, tween and teen girls, wonderful books, she was banned quite frequently. And Maya Angelou has also been banned quite frequently. The Bible actually gets challenged and banned a lot. It was number six on this year's list.
Julie Dina: What?
Danielle Deaver: For religious content. Yes, I thought that was-
Julie Dina: That's, that's what it's for.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah.
Julie Dina: Okay.
Danielle Deaver: And also, I think more recent challenges have objected to, things like the stoning of the homosexual man in a book that I would know if I was better at the Bible.
David Payne: So when it comes to banning books, what are the, or what do you see as the determinating factors that go into banning a book?
Alessandro Russo: So there's a cool feature online that there's, it's not complete, but there's a map of showing the location of where these books have been challenged and banned. And a lot of them are in Bible Belt America, Midwest America. And so I would say just off of that information, location is a major influence, obviously content of the book and being part of the location aspect, the personal beliefs, you know.
Danielle Deaver: Yeah. Just anecdotally, I would say that if you get a big enough group of people who is challenging the book, it's going to be more likely that the ban will go through. But I think Alessandro is right, it's a lot to do with location and just what type of censorship the population supports.
David Payne: And interesting, interesting enough, I think banned books are a pretty much a worldwide phenomenon. It's not just this country, right?
Danielle Deaver: Yes.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah.
Danielle Deaver: Back to the ancient Greeks.
David Payne: Right?
Danielle Deaver: Yes. And even when they're not officially banned, my manager and I today we're, or we're talking about how customers do sometimes find ways to kind of ban them themselves. One of the branches I worked in had the racier issues of cosmopolitan turned backward so people couldn't see the cover. And she was telling me that at some libraries, the book, Go the F to Sleep was constantly being turned around and once it was moved from new books to the stacks, it just disappeared. And I did a display for Gay Pride Month in the teen section last year, and when I walked past it on the second day, all of the books had been knocked down so that they were, you know, the covers faced, were just down in the bookshelf and you couldn't see them.
Julie Dina: You're sure it wasn't construction?
Danielle Deaver: I don't think it was because the historical fiction display across the way with oddly enough totally fine.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah, I think the most recent experience would be The Fifty Shades series.
David Payne: Yes.
Alessandro Russo: Where those tend to disappear or accidentally get re-shelved somehow in a completely different place.
David Payne: Different place.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah, yeah.
Julie Dina: Which leads me to my next question. Why do you think books get banned, do you think, for offending the sensibilities of mostly one group of people or do many different groups of people have to get involved?
Danielle Deaver: I think that a lot of the people who, you know, write about this and think about it a lot more than I do, use the word fear a lot. And a lot of it is society is changing and the things that are changing in it are scary and people don't want to deal with it, they don't want to read about it and they especially they don't want their children reading about it. The largest group of people who challenge these books are parents. And I think that that, you know kind of says a lot about how we think of childhood as a protected time, that isn't quite realistic.
Alessandro Russo: And one of my favorite quotes is from a Simpson’s character saying, "Think of the children." And so when I see a banned book or I hear about a banned book, that's the first thing that comes to mind.
Danielle Deaver: "Think about the children."
Julie Dina: Exactly.
David Payne: But that leads me to my next question. I'm going to put you both, both on the spot and ask you, have either of you ever been tempted to, to ban or challenge a book? And if so, what's your response to yourself? I'll start with, with Alessandro.
Alessandro Russo: So absolutely not to the first part of that question. Even I remember in library school, we were discussing about challenged books and what happens if you find, if there's a book out there that tells you how to put a bomb together? There are certain limitations to that. And the overall idea is if the book is going to cause harm to someone or is going to hurt someone in a non-psychological manner, then it's okay.
David Payne: Mm-hmm.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah.
Danielle Deaver: Yeah, I've never been tempted to ban a book, although like Alessandro said, I mean, a lot of these, you know, if somebody writes an entire book about, you know, how to build a nuclear bomb, like he said, like, I mean, we're not going to buy it. So a lot of that kind of takes place before the book ever reaches me. But when it comes to like fiction and that kind of stuff where it's more of a judgment call, I think every person reads every book differently almost to the point where they read a different book than I would. And so, I don't feel that I need to tell them what to read, they can choose.
Julie Dina: Well, I'll start with you Alessandro because I know before the program started, you mentioned the answer to this question. Does banning a book actually encourage more people to read it?
Alessandro Russo: I believe so. And then, I don't have a psychological explanation why, but I'm going to go based off of kind of that idea when you tell someone don't do something, they're going to do the complete opposite. That, that movement it's kind of increasing too as you know, more, more diverse books get challenged and banned and kind of go against the grain of society. So.
Danielle Deaver: Yeah, I agree. I think it does, it makes them more attractive to people because they feel like they're doing something daring.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah.
Danielle Deaver: And also, I mean I think people are starting to realize that a lot of the books that are being challenged and banned are books that address important topics. There's a group called Commonsense Media and it's a nonprofit that advocates for kind of using technology and media in a positive way for children. And it gives like ratings for various TV shows and movies and stuff. And they published an article last year encouraging families to read banned books together because it was a good way to get into these sometimes difficult but really important topics.
David Payne: So again, putting you both on the spot, can you tell us what your favorite banned books are and, and why? Let's start with you Danielle.
Danielle Deaver: Oh, I have to go with the, the really obvious answer, which is the Harry Potter series.
Alessandro Russo: Oh, Harry Potter, yeah.
Danielle Deaver: I just love them for the same -- you know, I think the -- what people saw as maybe witchcraft to me was just total escapism.
Alessandro Russo: I will go with a graphic novel, i-it's the Bone Series by Jeff Smith. And I believe they got banned originally because of political views and there was some cry because there was racism and violence.
Julie Dina: And down to our final question, it's actually traditional on our show for us to ask this final question, what are you both currently reading? Let's start with-
David Payne: Banned books or otherwise.
Danielle Deaver: Right now I'm reading a book called Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano. And I actually checked it out, it was an eBook from the Overdrive app at the Kendall County Library system.
Alessandro Russo: So I usually juggle a few books at the time, but the one that I've been deep into is Jim, it's a biography, Jim Henson by Brian Jones. And it's a fascinating book and it goes beyond the Muppets Incorporate and gets perspective of everyone he has worked with, his family, a recommended read if you're a biography enthusiast.
Julie Dina: Well, I would like to say a big thank you for coming on the program today. Thank you so much for being our guests. Let's keep the conversation going by following us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, please review and rate us on Apple Podcasts, we'll love to know what you think. Thank you once again for listening to our conversation today. See you next time.