April 13, 2024
Erik Pedersen writes The Book Pages newsletter each week about books, authors, libraries, bookstores and more.

They weren’t burning the books. Yet.

After a video went viral this month showing two Missouri state senators torching a pile of boxes using flamethrowers, a clarification was issued that, no, they weren’t burning books. Apparently, the fired-up crowd came to “celebrate freedom by burning some empty boxes,” according to one of the participants.

So despite its resemblance to an old-fashioned book burning, it was just an immolation demonstration directed at some freedom-hating boxes – all in the fiery spirit of our flammable founders.

Does that mean the books were safe? Well, no. “But let’s be clear, you bring those woke, pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too – on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion,” threatened state Sen. Bill Eigel in a statement.

That statement raises any number of questions – Which books? Who decides? And honestly, why would you set the governor’s lawn on fire? – but it’s probably more useful to focus on the fact that books are at risk now more than ever.

Banned Books Week begins Oct. 1, and the yearly campaign has become even more relevant as books featuring characters who are LGBTQ and persons of color are targeted.

“Banned Books Week is a celebration of the right to read, a celebration of representation in books – diversity that helps us see ourselves and also learn about experiences different from our own – and a celebration of reading,” says Allison K. Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association and former book columnist for this newspaper. “This year, it’s more important than ever.”

There’s been a steep increase in school book challenges – a 33 percent increase over the past year –  but the actual number of people objecting is minuscule: The Washington Post reported that 11 people were responsible for 60 percent of the 1,065 school district book challenges in 2021-2022. The Post this week published a piece on a Virginia parent who has filed 71 challenges in the last year against books by authors such as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg and Jodi Picoult.

(In a separate case, a single individual who objected to L.A. native Amanda Gorman’s poem for President Joe Biden’s inauguration got it pulled from a Florida elementary school. That same person shared a different text on social media – an antisemitic load of garbage – and later apologized for it.)

But rather than focus on book banners’ rhetoric, let’s look at ways that readers and book lovers can counter attempts to smother free expression. I spoke with banned novelist Elana K. Arnold, the Los Angeles Public Library’s John Szabo and best-selling crime writer S.A. Cosby about book bans.

Elana K. Arnold is the author of a number of books, including “The Blood Years.” (Photo by Arielle Gray / Courtesy of Harper Collins) 

She’s one of the most banned authors

Long Beach resident and National Book Award finalist Elana K. Arnold, author of a number of books for kids and young adults – including her upcoming “The Blood Years,” out on Oct. 9 – is the second most-banned author on PEN America’s most recent list with 26 instances. (Novelist Ellen Hopkins – with 89! – holds the top position.)

I asked Arnold how she responds to her work being challenged. The former Huntington Beach resident says she makes time to speak up at public meetings on behalf of books, libraries and librarians, including at a June Huntington Beach City Council meeting.

“It was important for me to show up and speak out,” she says, adding that it’s not enough to sign petitions or repost things on social media. “People need to actively support the things they care about and that literally means putting their bodies there. So if you care about libraries, you have to know what’s going on in your library, you have to know what’s going on in your city and show up for meetings. It’s boring, it’s awful, and I hate it. And we have to do it.”

Arnold says readers need to be as organized as those seeking to restrict access to books.

“It is strange to be caught up in the middle of it, sometimes it feels laughable,” she says, managing to be both formidable and funny in the face of censorship. “It’s so clear that it’s not about the books; it’s about control and identity politics.”

One of her books, “A Boy Called Bat,” about a child on the autism spectrum and an orphaned baby skunk, was included on a recommended list of diverse reads before later getting banned. …Wait, why?

“A group had decided that just the fact these books were all on a list called ‘diverse’ was enough reason to pull them all. So, they didn’t read the books. It was just the word ‘diverse’ was such a trigger to this group … It’s such an absurd thing,” says Arnold, who was tested as an adult and found to be on the autism spectrum. “It’s not good for any of us when our books are banned.”

Arnold mentions her picture book collaboration with Linda Davick, “What Riley Wore,” and the reasons that book was banned. “It’s just a book about dressing for the occasion and wearing what feels good and it has no pronouns at all attributed to Riley. It’s been banned in places,” says Arnold. “It’s very clear to me that these people who are banning and restricting books just don’t want the language even to be out there … for people to understand themselves.”

In the afterward of her upcoming “The Blood Years,” which is Arnold’s first historical novel and one based on her grandmother’s experience as a Jewish teenager in Romania during the Holocaust, the author says she addresses the topic of banning books.

“It is so much easier to destroy than it is to create, right? … It can take all day long and a whole group of people to build a sandcastle, and then all it takes is one bully to come along and kick at it and destroy it in a matter of seconds. I think that’s what’s going on here: there’s joyful glee of destruction,” she says. “Must feel powerful to know you’re causing that big of a ruckus.”

Arnold is scheduled to launch “The Blood Years” on Oct. 9 in Long Beach at the Barbara and Ray Alpert Jewish Community Center. 

John F. Szabo is the City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library. (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library) 

The library is for everyone

John Szabo is City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, overseeing 73 branches and the largest and most diverse population of any public library in the country – more than four million people. He says Banned Books Week is a yearly event at the library, because the libraries want to draw people’s attention to the ongoing issue.

“Public libraries are one of the most trusted institutions in the country, and that is a position and a place that’s been earned over decades … We are an institution that truly is committed to serving everyone, people from all political backgrounds, all socio-economic backgrounds,” he says, adding that there are books that he doesn’t want to read on the shelves, too – and that’s just fine.

“I will defend those books being available to you and everyone else and to stay on that shelf. It’s important to help people understand that commitment to intellectual freedom that libraries have,” he says.

Szabo, who was recently featured in a terrific piece by the Los Angeles Times’ Jeffrey Fleishman, wants to remind people that librarians are defending people’s freedom, not the ones trying to take it away.

“These organized efforts to not only remove content from libraries, but to take that professional responsibility away from librarians around the country is an attack on libraries and it’s an attack on intellectual freedom,” he says. “There’s no other way than to see it as an attack on LGBTQ community and persons of color because virtually all of the material that is getting challenged are books that tell the stories of and the experiences of those communities.”

Everyone, he stresses, is welcome at the library.

“The public library stretches its arms out wide every morning and welcomes everyone … whether you’re roaming our stacks at Central Library or one of our branches or whether you’re exploring our digital catalog and downloading an audiobook or a book on your device. We encourage that exploration,” says Szabo. “We also support families to come to the library together and to make decisions on what to check out based on their own values as well. The library is here to have materials that help tell everyone’s story.”

“All the Sinners Bleed” author S.A. Cosby talks about his latest novel. (Photo credit Sam Sauter / Courtesy of Flatiron Books) 

Here’s what a crime novelist sees

S.A. Cosby talked about book bans when I interviewed him earlier this year about his novel “All the Sinners Bleed,” especially that “there are people who are twisting themselves in a knot to ban books about LGBTQ, African Americans, or people of color,” but said there isn’t similar distress about high capacity magazines and school shootings.

“They want to control the past, they want to create a sort of homogenized idealized version of America that never existed,” he says.

As much as he objects to book bans, he also said he doesn’t think they will have the intended effect the banners want.

“They can ban books; it’s not going to change. It’s not going to stop kids from finding their identity as a gay man or a gay woman or as a trans man or trans woman or nonbinary person,” he said.

“We live in the information age. It’s almost quaint that they think, Oh, by banning these books, the kids will never learn about it,” he said. “It’s ultimately fruitless. I think deep down inside, those people know it. Sometimes people like to do things so people see them doing them, not because they have any long-lasting effect.

“Knowledge is like water; it just takes a trickle. It will come out. You can build all the dams you want; it’s still going to make its way out.”

For more about Banned Book Week and what you can do, check out Pen America, Unite Against Book Bans, American Booksellers Association, your local library or one of the 100 independent bookstores in California that will be participating in events.

What have you been reading? Please email me at [email protected] with “ERIK’S BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and I may include your comments in an upcoming newsletter.

And if you enjoy this free newsletter, please share it with other book lovers and consider getting a digital subscription to support local coverage.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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