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Banned books on display and up for debate at Oakland stores and libraries

on September 30, 2011

If you walk into a bookstore this week, don’t be alarmed if you see warning signs and caution tape wrapped around bookcases.

Over the past year, according to the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, 46 books have been “banned” in the United States—taken off school and main library shelves, removed as “inappropriate” from class reading lists, attacked by bloggers and family value organizations or re-edited to replace words deemed offensive.

All of these books are being showcased this week for a library and bookstore event called Banned Book Week.

“There are always great quotes from people who want books banned,” said Eve Sheehan, an employee at College Avenue’s Pegasus Books, which has participated in Banned Book Week for the past 20 years.

College Avenue’s Pegasus Books set up a banned book display by putting bookmarks in each text with a quote or review explaining more.

This year, Pegasus has set up a banned book display at the right of the entrance door. Each displayed book features a customized bookmark with a quote or review explaining why it was removed from a library shelf or challenged in different communities.

One of the special bookmarks, for the Maurice Sendak children’s book In the Night Kitchen, cites 26-year-old complaints from Wisconsin elementary school parents that it exposes “nudity for no reason” and features a main character who loses his pajamas and “desensitizes children to nudity.” The bookmark for Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax cites complaints—from the logging community of Laytonville, California in 1989, where the book was nearly removed from a children’s reading list—that the book “criminalizes the foresting industry.”

The kind of book criticism singled out for attention during Banned Book Week usually stems from school districts in which parents have complained about a text or library-available book the parents find offensive. Controversial or provocative author approaches to gender, race, profanity, sex, drugs and domestic violence are common themes that put a book on trial.

Books challenged or pulled from students’ ready access in 2010 — 2011 include Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, Larry Baker’s The Flamingo Rising, Sapphire’s Push, and the Koran.

Anne Frank’s unedited diary, The Definitive Edition, was pulled last year from county public schools in Culpeper, Virginia.

The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, a journal that reports attempts to remove books from schools and libraries, listed two California incidents this past year that involved public complaint over the contents of books. In Santa Cruz, an event honoring author Joseph Lelyveld  was cancelled after the hosting foundation received complaints that Leylveld’s book, Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, suggested a homosexual relationship in the past of the Indian leader.

At San Luis Obispo High School Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa was challenged because of a passage detailing sexual assault. The book, which has been taught at the school for over a decade, was later retained.

Oakland’s Main Library has been hosting Banned Book Week in the building’s teen zone on the second floor. Along with a display of banned books, people of all age groups can use a button maker machine to make shirt pins that represent freedom of expression.

Amy Sonnie, a local librarian helping with the event, is a banned book author herself. Sonnie’s book, Revolutionary Voices: A Multi-Cultural Queer Youth Anthology, was removed ten years ago from the shelves of two libraries in Burlington County, New Jersey.

Sonnie’s book—comprising art, essays and poetry by and for queer youth—was challenged for sexual and homosexual content, including at least one image regarded by some complaining parents as inappropriately suggestive.  The biographies of some contributors were also challenged.

Janeen Wright, 14, and Jade Williams, 14, both ninth-graders at American Indian Public Charter School, use a button maker machine in the teen zone of Oakland Main Library a few days before banned book week.

“I was surprised to hear my book was banned,” Sonnie said. “First from a school library, then a public one. It’s no more controversial than what a teenager would hear in the hallways [of school].”

Amy Martin, a children’s librarian at Oakland Main, watched a shelf of 50 books diminish to 25 when people noticed a sign was posted reading, “Danger! Do Not Enter! These Books Have Been Banned!”

“People are shocked to learn books they loved when they were kids are being pulled off the library shelves,” Martin said.

A few students taking advantage of the button machine came to the library’s teen zone after school. While poring through magazines for images to customize, they listened to a list of banned books being read off.

The Catcher in the Rye: “That book was awesome!” said Janeen Wright, a ninth-grader at American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS). “I read it in sixth grade, just for a pleasure book.”

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl: “Yeah! Of course, I read that in like 5th grade!” said Jade Williams, who also attends AIPCS.

“It was banned?” asked Jonasha McCoy, an 11th grader at Oakland High School.

Jonasha McCoy, 17, an 11th grader at Oakland High School, makes finishing touches on her custom-made button pin.

“Why? It’s not inappropriate or anything,” said Jade. “It’s telling the story of a poor girl during World War II.”

A printing of Anne Frank’s unedited diary, The Definitive Edition, was pulled last year from county public schools in Culpeper, Virginia when a parent in Culpeper argued it contained “sexual material and homosexual themes.” After attracting international attention for the removal, Culpeper’s school district allowed the book to be taught at higher grade levels.

Ambiur Simmons, a 16-year-old who attends class with Jonasha, listened thoughtfully as a reporter read aloud a list of titles from a pamphlet called Books Challenged or Banned in 2010 — 2011. “That’s limiting our education!” Ambiur said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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