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Oakland librarians celebrate freedom to read

on October 1, 2014

As Vicky Chen, the teen librarian at the Rockridge Library Branch, attempted to settle the chaotic rush of middle school students visiting the youth section after school, a student suddenly asked, “Ms. Vicky, how can a book be banned?”

Chen, along with other Oakland librarians, highlighted banned books at their respective branches by creating displays for Banned Books Week, which ran from September 21 to 27, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read. At the Rockridge branch, Chen’s display is in a small corner of the teen section: bright yellow caution tape surrounding a few plastic shelf slots with banned graphic novels and chapter books including Maus by Art Spiegelman, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and a book from the Twilight saga.

Although the display is small, teens quickly started checking out the books after the display went up and Chen continued to fill empty the slots with more books. The students, who are mostly from Claremont Middle School and Oakland Technical High School, are often curious about why books are banned and wonder why banned books can be checked out in Oakland. “It means the books are controversial in other areas of the country,” Chen said to a group of teens.

For Chen, creating the display was also an opportunity to talk to students about what it means for a book to be challenged or banned. When a book is challenged an individual or group is attempting to remove or restrict it from a public library, school or school district. If a book is banned, it is removed completely. Library and school boards make the final call on whether a book will remain on the shelves.

“It’s great to do a display so they [teens] can think about it, that other people have a different way of looking at things.” Chen said.

Banned Books Week began in 1982. One of its co-cofounders, Judith Krug, was a well known First Amendment and library activist. The American Library Association, or ALA, sponsors Banned Books Week every year to celebrate intellectual freedom and the right of free expression under the First Amendment. Banned Books Week “is a chance to celebrate our freedom to read and raise awareness on censorship,” said Kristin Pekoll the assistant director for the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

According to the ALA, between the years 2000 and 2009 books were primarily challenged for offensive language, sexually explicit material or because some people believed they were unsuitable for a certain age group of readers. Parents, public libraries, schools and school libraries were the highest book challengers during those years.

Other city libraries with banned books displays in the teen section last week included the Dimond Branch and the Elmhurst Branch. At the César E. Chávez Branch Library in the Fruitvale District, teen librarian Susy Moorhead set up an ongoing display in the ethnic studies section of books banned in Tucson, Arizona under House Bill 2281, which outlawed ethnic studies in all publicly-funded schools in the Tucson Unified School District.

Moorehead’s display features books by Chicana and Chicano authors including Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, a book about a “curandera,” an elderly woman who is a healer. The book was banned for what some readers considered satanic and sexual content, offensive language and for its religious viewpoint. During Banned Books Week, the branch screened the film Precious Knowledge: Arizona’s battle over Ethnic Studies, a documentary by Dos Vatos Productions that follows students and educators who challenge the ethnic studies ban in Tucson.

Moorhead also has discussions with teens about banned books and she said they are often shocked to hear they have been banned. “I think they are surprised because we live in a liberal area and they can’t imagine that this could happen somewhere,” Moorhead said. “I’ve shown them different children’s books and teen books that have been banned, like Harry Potter, and they ask why would this be banned?”

But there are often regional differences in what parents and teachers believe kids and teens should be reading.

“The dynamics of the country at a national level vary greatly from the Bay Area to Washington D.C. to the South,” said Pekoll. “Books are banned for all sorts of reasons and sometimes it’s reflective of the culture and the area of the country.” According Pekoll, an individual has the right to sue a library if they believe their access to a book has been denied.

In 2013, children’s and teens’ books landed on the top three of the ALA’s ten most challenged books. The books, available for check out through the Oakland Public Library, are Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey (which was challenged by people who believe it contains offensive language and violent content unsuitable for children), The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (challenged over language and sexually explicit content some believe unsuitable for teenagers), and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie for mentions of drugs, alcohol, sexual content as well as what some readers found offensive language unsuitable for teenagers or racist content.

Comic books and graphic novels have also become a popular target; just like books, comics can be challenged or banned for profanity, violence, or religious views. According to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s website, popular comics such as Bone by Jeff Smith and Dragonball by Akira Toriyama are often banned. Bone is number ten on the ALA’s 2013 list of most challenged books. It has been challenged for racist and violent content, and for its political viewpoint.

“Books should not be banned, they are knowledge,” said Anthony Casanova, a regular at the César E. Chávez branch, as he stood in the library with a book in his hands. “If they are out there, they have something to offer us.”

For more information on banned books, visit the American Library Association. A list of banned comic books can be found on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website. The book display in the César E. Chávez Branch Library is ongoing and open to the public. The Banned Books Week display in the Rockridge Branch Library will be up until Friday, October 3rd.


  1. Naomi Schiff on October 1, 2014 at 11:52 am

    “a book from the saga”? Which saga? Something seems to be missing.

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