How should parents deal with the ‘book banning’ controversy? Utah library advocates offer ideas

It was the kind of experience that gives a young teacher nightmares.

Heidi Matthews was a 30-year-old teacher when a book she'd assigned her sophomore honors English class to read was challenged by the parent of two of her students. The parent felt the book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou, was objectionable because in the memoir Angelou describes being raped by her stepfather and how she stopped talking after the assault.

"The challenge followed our district policy for reconsideration of library materials to a T," Matthews said, noting that she had support from her teacher's union, which helped her "justify my choices, my curriculum and simply to support me in this process that felt very scary to me as a young professional."

In seeking to give her students exposure to literature that they might otherwise not choose, she felt like she'd "done something wrong." But the process actually became a wonderful discussion of why diverse literature choices matter and how minds are expanded with exposure to experiences that are not one's own.

"So what I had dreaded became a celebration of the power of books, the importance of having opportunities for students to have freedom to choose and learn, and for the important role that literature and our libraries play in our education," Matthews said at a press conference organized by the Utah Library Advocates, where a new e-book that aims to help parents understand the First Amendment protections for literature and library protocols was presented. The meeting also provided suggestions on how to deal with related issues or questions.

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The press conference comes after a wave of book challenges in both school and public libraries in Utah and across the country, and an effort to have librarians or teachers arrested for sharing books some find objectionable with students.

Rita Baguio Christensen, president of the Utah Library Association, said librarians are fielding calls for help from librarians around the state on a daily basis.

One situation alarmed educators significantly, and that was when, in late October, a complaint by a single parent in the Canyons School District prompted nine books to be pulled from library shelves in four high schools. This was a violation of the district policy, which requires the challenged books to remain in circulation until a review is completed. District officials, however, said the situation didn't fall into their policy as the parental complaint revealed a flaw in their rules by not allowing challenges to come from outside a school community, including a request for review from the district office.

That policy, which was just approved in May of 2020, is being rewritten and will be presented for the second time on Tuesday night at the Canyons School Board meeting. Several of the 10 speakers pointed out the myriad issues with taking books out of circulation for all children because of the objection of one or two parents.

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"Books save lives," said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. "They contain the stories, the myths and the adventures that open us up to the possibilities of who we are and what we can become. Throughout different eras, there have always been reactionary fear mongers who seek to silence the voices of the novel and the unique."

Peter Bromberg hadn't planned on sharing a personal observation, but he was moved to do so after most of the community leaders shared their thoughts. A longtime fan of Charles M. Schulz and the Peanuts comic strip, he said he receives a bound copy of a collection of the comics each year on his birthday. This year's collection contained an essay from Al Roker, "Today" show host and meteorologist, about the introduction of the comic's first Black character, Franklin, in 1968. Schulz said he received threats after introducing the character.

Bromberg was visibly emotional as he shared his thoughts on how those same complaints are echoing through the book challenges that have occurred in school districts across the state.

"And I am afraid that the same motivation that existed in July of 1968," he said, "the motivation to simply erase the depiction of the existence of a human being and human beings' experience is at the absolute core of what is happening today."

He continued, "Regardless of whatever rhetoric and things that are taken out of context for shock value and to scare us, it comes down to some people simply want to remove the existence of other people from their reality, and from the perception of their kids' reality. That's what it comes down to."

A number of speakers talked about conversations with young people who said literature and libraries were their "safe haven." The challenges, they said, are not coming from students. They're coming from parents who want to remove books, not just from their own child's life but from the lives of all children.

"We just need to redirect that parental energy," said Lehua Parker, author and PIK2AR literary coordinator. "Instead of parents focusing on books they don't want in the library, I believe they should be creating lists of books that they do want in the library. They should send their students to libraries with lists of books that they approve, that they want their child to read, so their child can check them out and have a reading experience. And don't worry so much about what's in somebody else's backpack."

She continued, "Books don't do anything. It's the experience that a reader has with a book that transfers knowledge, and they're not even taking the time to understand what's in the book."