GRAND HAVEN. (WOOD) — The Loutit District Library in Grand Haven is hosting a Banned Books month in September promoting works that have been challenged or outright banned over the last 100 years.
Librarian Chelsea McCoy says she was inspired to put the exhibit together after the millage renewal for Patmos Library in Jamestown Township failed in August because some voters disapproved that books dealing with LGBTQ issues were available. The Patmos Library has since raised several thousand dollars via a community-led GoFundMe account, including a $50,000 donation from popular romance author Nora Roberts.
To educate people about the history of book banning and what’s happening now, librarians in Grand Haven set out dozens of popular books that have been challenged over the years in the middle of their library.
“There’s been increasing numbers of challenges and bans. We really wanted to make sure there was an educational piece to this. We want to make sure people understand why this is happening, why it’s important to have the freedom to read. It’s a part of our basic free speech,” McCoy said.
She said the information behind the exhibit came from the American Library Association. The books on the list include some classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” There are some educational materials like “Eyewitness Horse,” a book that details everything about the mammals, which was challenged for mentioning evolution. There are also several children’s books including some from the “Goosebumps” series, “Junie B. Jones and The Stupid Smelly Bus” and Shel Silverstein’s “A Light in the Attic.”
A display in the exhibit explains that most challenges to reading materials come from parents. They also sometimes come from religious groups and very rarely from students themselves. The challenges have been documented for school curriculum, school libraries and public libraries. In 2021, there were 729 challenges, according to data from the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
“One of the recent books that’s gotten a lot of challenges is called ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ and this is one of the top 10 books that was challenged this previous year. ‘Lawn Boy,’ this one was also a big one, as well as ‘Out of Darkness,'” McCoy said as she showed the books on display. “The biggest themes lately have been issues about race as well as LGBTQ issues. Over the years, sexual content seems to be one of the big ones. Language is also common.”
The exhibit also includes a timeline of censorship dating back to 259 B.C. The timeline features local examples like a ban on Harry Potter books at Zeeland Public Schools in the 90s. The librarians say they are hoping to educate readers and drive their curiosity.
“I just can’t believe that most of the titles are ones that I recognize. I didn’t even realize that these books were banned or that there was any controversy around them ” said Kara Willoughby, who stopped by the library exhibit with her son Tuesday afternoon. “I checked some of them out even because it piqued my interest as to why they’re not allowed and what it’s all about.”
McCoy said to encourage readers to interact with the books in the exhibit, the library is hosting a banned book reading challenge. For every controversial book finished, library visitors will have the chance to spin a wheel and win prizes like stickers or mugs.
McCoy say librarians are hoping to promote the ALA’s slogan for banned books week this year: “Censorship divides us and reading gives us wings.”
“I think one of the things about books is you can see yourself through a book and so maybe you can also see someone else who’s not like you and I think a lot of the times that scares people: learning things you’re not familiar with or is outside of your comfort zone as far as religion, sexuality. The more you read about people different from you, you do develop empathy,” McCoy said.
“Pretty much everyone will walk into the library and find something that offends them,” she continued. “It’s not going to be everything on the shelf is for everyone, and so we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to find something to read, find something that connects to them.”
The exhibit launches Thursday and will be available through the end of September. The librarians at Loutit are planning to add bookmarks to each reading that explain why each book was challenged or banned.