Advocates challenge local, nationwide efforts to remove books during ‘Banned Books Week’

SEATTLE — Sept.18 to 24 marks Banned Books Week, and there have been several efforts recently — as well as historically — to remove some books from the shelves, whether in public libraries or from school curriculums and libraries.

Reading advocates have ramped up efforts to deal with what they consider censorship of reading material, while people in favor of bans have also increased efforts to remove what they consider inappropriate material. A particular focus in the last several years has zeroed in on school districts and attempts to limit certain books.

Tacoma Community College’s library website has a section that deals with banned books. The site also has tracked and listed books that have faced challenges in Washington.

The website says that though Washington is not considered a hot zone for book bans and challenges, censorship efforts do exist. The lists shows some historical challenges to books, such as “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley in 2011 in Seattle, or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” by Ken Kesey in 1986. There’s also a section that deals with children’s books facing challenges, which lists “In the Night Kitchen,” by Maurice Sendak and “The Lorax,” by Dr Seuss.

Washington state has seen several recent efforts to remove books. In January, KIRO 7 covered efforts to remove the 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee from a required reading list. At that time it was reported that English teachers at Mukilteo High School were concerned that the book marginalized people of color.

In June, a book that was initially banned by the Kent School District went back onto the shelves. The Kent School Board voted to overturn a decision to ban “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” by L.C. Rosen from the Cedar Heights Middle School library. The book has an LGBTQ+ main character. Supporters of the book insist it can help teens and youth struggling with their sexuality. Others say the book is sexually explicit and should not be available to students in middle school.

Sara Strite found out about the efforts in Kent and decided to take action to get the book reinstated. She said the message of Banned Books Week is more important now as books face challenges nationwide.

“My most important takeaway for Banned Books Week is we have librarians for a reason. Librarians are trained; they are educators, they are also there interacting with the students. School districts need to be able to empower librarians to make decisions. School districts should not have policies that allow individual admins that object to a book’s content to be able to pull it,” Strite said.

Richard Middleton-Kaplan is part of the Speakers Bureau for Humanities Washington, a group that says one of its core missions is to open minds and bridge divides by creating spaces to explore different perspectives. Middleton-Kaplan has spoken out against book bans. He says that taking away reading can be viewed not just as a violation of educational goals, but also human rights and free speech tenets.

“When a book is removed from the curriculum or the shelves, it also controls what other parents’ children can read or have access to, so all end up being denied that access as well as the authors being denied their free speech,” said Middleton-Kaplan.

A group called Moms for Liberty — a non-profit — has been behind several initiatives challenging school policies across the country. The group says it’s advocating for parental rights in education and it has tackled issues surrounding COVID-19 school closures and mandates. A spokesperson for the group said that it is concerned about books and reading material for children in school. In a statement to KIRO 7. the group’s founders, Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice say:

“The debate over banning books should only happen after public school students are all able to READ books. But, an alarming amount of our students can’t read! Our country is now at a 30-year-record low in literacy scores. Where is the outrage over that? All we hear from teachers unions is this villainization of parents who express their concern with suicide and incest being assigned reading to young kids. Where is the anger about the kids in fourth grade who can’t read at all? The book ban fight is a distraction from the failure of the teachers unions in America. We have launched the Moms for Liberty Parent Pledge this week to get a list of candidates together that will help people know how to vote in November. If a candidate doesn’t agree that parents have the right to be a part of their child’s public education, we need to know. It’s time to make lasting change on school boards across the country so our kids can learn again.”

Statistics compiled by several groups point to the recent trend of book challenges. A group called PEN America, a non-profit for free expression through literature, says there have been more than 1,500 book challenges and bans in the United States since September 2021. The American Library Association says it tracked 729 challenges to 1,597 books in 2021.