Banned books invite a read
NEW ULM — This week, visitors to the second floor of the New Ulm Public Library will see a display of some of the most popular and controversial books in their collection.
The display is part of the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual Banned Books Week. For the last 39 years, the ALA has celebrated challenged books during the last week of September.
The purpose of the week is to promote the freedom to read and raise awareness of books that face the greatest challenges and organized protest.
Every time a library, school or media center receives a formal request to remove a book from its collection this is referred to as a challenge. Hundreds of challenges are submitted to libraries every year.
In the last year, the 10 most challenged books were “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas; “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison; “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck; “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee; “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice,” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie; “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson; “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds and “George” by Alex Gino.
This year, nine out of the ten most challenged books are available at one or more New Ulm libraries. The New Ulm Public Library has a copy of nine of the books.
“Something Happened in Our Town” is the only book the library does not have at this time. Martin Luther College’s (MLC) library also has several books. At least half of the ten most challenged books are in the campus library.
These books have faced numerous censorship attempts nationally but not in New Ulm. None of the local libraries have reported receiving a formal challenge to any reading material in the last year.
MLC Library Director Linda Kramer said there have been no challenges to the college collection in at least eight years.
Even though the college does not receive book challenges, Kramer said MLC does have a formal process for challenging a book. Anyone who makes a formal challenge is first asked if they have read the entire book.
“Context is important,” Kramer said. A person might be requesting a book be removed because of a single passage read out of context. This single passage might not be representative of the work as a whole.
New Ulm Public Library Director Paulina Poplawska said the library has not received a challenge in over two years.
The last time the library received a challenge was for the children’s book “The Beach at Night.” The book was originally written in Italian and translated into English. The concern at the time was about the appropriateness of the language in the book being in the children’s section.
The New Ulm Public Library also has a formal challenge process. A formal written request to remove the book must be submitted. Poplawska said usually people do not take this step even if they’re displeased with a book.
Poplawska said there is a cyclical nature to the most challenged list. Certain books tend to return to this list every few years. This year “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” made a return to the top ten list of most challenged books. Neither were on last year’s most challenged list, but the two books are always among the most challenged.
Poplawska said it is likely linked to school curriculums. “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” are required reading in many schools and that extra attention creates controversy.
It is not unusual for the most challenged books to be the most popular. “The Hate U Give” is the 10th most challenged book this last year and is also an extremely popular book at New Ulm Public Library.
The “Harry Potter” series did not make the top ten most challenging list this year, but it did make the list last year and several years before. “Harry Potter” is also one of the most popular book series in history.
Young adult fiction is another common trend in challenged books. An often-cited reason a book is challenged is its deemed inappropriate for the target age group. Over half of the books on the most challenged list were written for young adults or children.
The most challenged book of last year was Alex Gino’s “George” which was written for middle school students. It was the most challenged book two years in a row.
There was a new trend in this year’s list of most challenged books. Several of the books added to this list dealt with issues of racism. Many of the challenges claimed these books contained an anti-police bias.
“The Hate U Give” is about a 16-year-old Black girl who witnesses a white police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend and the social upheaval that follows.
“Something Happened in Our Town” is a children’s book about families discussing racialized police shootings.
“All American Boys” is a novel told from the perspective of an African American boy and a Caucasian boy. The African American boy is assaulted by a white police officer in the book.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is an older book, but it is centered around the trial of a Black man for a crime he did not commit and is ultimately killed when he tries to escape.
Youth Services Librarian Kathryn Tatnall said with critical race theory and the trial of Geoge Floyd in the news it becomes a popular topic in literature.
“As someone who purchases young adult books for the library I can confirm the topic has been big the last two years,” Tatnall said.
Though New Ulm libraries have most of the challenged books in their collection, this was not intentional.
“We don’t set out to be controversial,” Tatnall said. “We try to give out information that should be a mirror of the community but also a mirror to the world.”
In general, libraries strive to have a wide and varied collection as possible and try to avoid censoring information. Even when a library does not have a particular book there are methods to get the book, such as interlibrary loans. The Traverse des Sioux Library Cooperative has an extensive collection available to library patrons.
Local libraries will work together to provide patrons with reading material. MLC’s library is available to more than just campus students and staff. New Ulm Public Library cards are valid at MLC’s library and MLC students can use their college cards at the city library.
The ALA notes that even though attempts to ban books continue each year, in the majority of cases the books are never removed from collections and remain available. In truth, few of the books celebrated during Banned Books Week are ever banned.