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Utah authors, librarians and teachers call for more open minds rather than more banned books

Banned Book Week Panel, banned books on display, Sept. 19, 2022
Martha Harris
A display showing the top banned or challenged books in Utah, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

It’s Banned Books Week and Utah authors, librarians and academics are speaking out against efforts to remove certain books from library shelves.

Last week, the American Library Association reported that the number of attempts in 2022 to ban or restrict library resources is on track to beat the previous year’s record. Between the start of 2022 and Aug. 31, the association documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict library materials nationwide. Most of these attempts targeted multiple books.

During all of 2021, the association reported 729 attempts. And that pattern is reflected in Utah.

“So what we’re seeing…is these huge requests of lists with hundreds of titles that people — parents’ rights groups — are demanding to be removed from libraries,” Salt Lake County assistant branch manager Katie Wegner said during a panel about book banning put on by the University of Utah library.

In August, the Alpine School District pulled 52 books from its shelves after it received complaints. The group PEN America, a literary organization that advocates for freedom of expression, called the move “worrisome” and noted that 42% of the books featured LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

Banned Book Week Panel, Catherine Bates, Lauren Liang, Katie Wegner and Richard Price, Sept. 19, 2022
Martha Harris
From left, Catherine Bates, Lauren Liang, Katie Wegner, and Richard Price answer questions during a panel discussion on censorship at the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

University of Utah Associate Professor of Educational Psychology Lauren Liang said she has seen these book challenges happening more in recent years, in Utah and nationwide. She said during the panel that she spoke with a high school teacher last week who was in tears because a book in her classroom was challenged and she did not know what to do.

Book challenges frequently come from concerned parent groups, like the conservative Utah Parents United. The group’s website has a page with instructions for how parents can find out if there is “sexually explicit” material in their children’s school and then report it.

Utah Parents United did not respond to KUER’s request for comment.

Another panelist, Weber State University associate professor of political science Richard Price, said while some parents groups have expressed concerns about what they say is porn in their kid’s school libraries, Price said school libraries do not contain porn.

“For them [Utah Parents United], any depiction of sex is treated as porn and thus has to be excluded from the schools, from public libraries,” Price said. “But when you look at what actually gets challenged in schools, some of it has sex in it and some of it just has queer people.”

One book that has been challenged nationally is “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier. Price said the graphic novel does not include anything sexually explicit but does feature two boys kissing.

One question raised during the panel was why the focus on censoring books if kids can turn to the internet and social media for explicit material?

Liang thinks it is because it’s easier to control the materials used in schools than it is to control the internet.

“Books are highly, highly empathetic stories,” said Utah young adult author Shannon Hale. “When you read a book, you gain empathy for the characters in the book, unlike any other kind of storytelling other than knowing a person face-to-face and hearing their story in person.”

Hale said there are neighborhoods in Utah where kids may have never personally met someone who is not white, but when a kid reads a book about a person of color, they can see that person’s humanity.

Hale thinks some parents are scared of their kids empathizing with certain groups of people, and that censoring certain books will keep current power structures in place.

“And I think there are people who are afraid of their kids and teens empathizing with people that they kind of don't want to think about or wish that didn't exist,” Hale said.

Hale points to books about people of color or the LGBTQ+ community. Every year, the American Library Association compiles a list of the top 10 most challenged books and in 2021, half of those books included LGBTQ+ characters and themes.

She said books do two things really well: they help you develop empathy for people different from you and validate who you are. So when books are banned, Hale said it harms kids not traditionally represented in stories.

Hale has privately written letters to her local libraries and kids’ schools to voice her support for kids having access to diverse books. But she recently authored an open letter that was signed by 40 Utah authors. Hale said she wanted to publically voice her opposition to censorship because of the high rate of suicide for Utah teenagers. In 2020 in Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds, according to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

“Attempts to ban books about underrepresented kids sends them the message: you shouldn’t exist, your story doesn’t matter, and we don’t want our kids to empathize with you,” the letter reads. “More than ever, they need us to show them unequivocally: you matter, we love you, and we want you here. All of you.”

If parents have concerns about what books are in their kid’s school library, Hale said they should approach the issue with curiosity rather than fear.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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