CHICAGO — A glass shelf displaying some of the most notable challenged books in the country adorns the entryway of the Chicago Public Library’s Lincoln Belmont branch. The books are surrounded by yellow tape and red signs that inevitably steer the attention of those who walk inside to the titles that have been banned, or attempted to be banned, in other libraries across the country.
But instead of taking the books off the shelves, visitors at the library were invited — in celebration of Banned Book Week 2022 — to learn about each one of them and encourage discussions about the topics for which they were banned. City Lit Theater Company joined the efforts by presenting a theatrical display of iconic banned and challenged books, allowing people to make their own decision on whether to read them.
Last week, city and Chicago Public Library officials declared Chicago a sanctuary city for those stories, by establishing “Book Sanctuaries” across the city’s 77 distinct community areas and 81 library branches. That entails a commitment to expand local access to banned or challenged books through library programming.
“As one of the most diverse cities in the country, Chicago is proud to continue welcoming people from all walks of life and providing spaces for them to share their experiences,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a news release.
Meanwhile, attempts to ban books across the country — including in suburban Illinois — are escalating at a rate never seen since the American Library Association began tracking data more than 20 years ago, according its most recent report.
2022 already has the highest number of reported complaints, documenting attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different titles, compared with 1,597 books in the whole year of 2021, the report found. The targeted titles are stories that focus on LGBTQ, sexuality, race and racism, the association reported.
The removal of these stories from the shelves of libraries and schools can be especially detrimental for young people who can identify with the stories or characters in the books, said Tracie Hall, the executive director of the American Library Association.
Hall commended the move by the city of Chicago to create book sanctuaries, saying that it “mirrors the city’s intentionality about being a place of belonging for all, especially for people who along with their stories have been marginalized, silenced, or left out altogether,” she said. “Now, at a time when calls for the censure of books and attacks on writers and librarians is at an all-time high, surpassing even that of the McCarthy era, the Book Sanctuary stands as a reminder that ideas and stories — even when we disagree on them — should convene us rather than rend us apart.”
The efforts to ban the books don’t have a specific face or come from a particular group, Hall said. In fact, she said, the attempts to challenge the titles come from both sides of the political spectrum, Democrats and Republicans, whether it be in suburban Illinois or California. But the report found that extremist groups have played a key role in the escalation of the attempts to ban books in the country, Hall said.
“They are recruiting parents and telling them that as good parents they should vouch to ban these books,” Hall said.
The report also highlights the role that conservative politicians and politics has had in the recent efforts to ban books that uplift LGBTQ experiences. Those attempts to ban the books can be a written objection, a complaint form submitted to a library or a demand for removal of the title on social media or another platform.
“It’s all the books that have been mostly written by or are about the experiences of Black, Indigenous, people of color, as well as LGBTQ writers,” Hall said. “That may be happening as a desire to silence these communities, because increasingly we’re understanding in this country that we’re not going to be able to progress without reckoning with equity and inclusion.”
PEN America, a New York-based literary and free expression nonprofit advocacy group, identified 50 groups that are leading efforts to ban books at the national, state and local levels, according to its most recent report on the growing movement to censor books in school. They include conservative Facebook and other social media groups. Moms for Liberty, which has Illinois chapters in Lake, Cook and DuPage counties, is mentioned as one of the most active groups, with a total of 200 chapters.
In Illinois, several school districts banned a number of books that uplift queer voices, according to the PEN report.
“Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe was banned at Community High School in Lake Villa. That same title was banned at Harlem School in Machesney Park. At Rowva Community United school in Oneida, Illinois, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas was removed from shelves, according to the PEN report.
In all, the report says that from July 2021 to June 2022, local officials banned 2,532 books by 1,261 authors, 290 illustrators and 18 translators. The bans occurred in 138 school districts in 32 states, the report found.
The most frequently banned book was “Gender Queer,” which was banned in 41 districts, characterized as “pornographic” for its illustrations of sexual acts while telling a nonfiction story of the author navigating gender identity and relationships with family and friends.
In June, the Downers Grove high school board unanimously voted to keep the book in its libraries even after a group of parents and some members of the far-right Proud Boys group raised concerns over the controversial title, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Just last week in Barrington, the school board voted to keep “Flame” and “This Book Is Gay,” two books about gender and sexuality.
In a 4-3 vote, the board ultimately accepted a recommendation by a school advisory committee of experts to keep the books after determining they didn’t meet the standard for obscenity and pornography.
Erin Chan Ding, a board member, said the removal of the books could potentially impact young people that could identify as LGBTQ students. And though the books may have strong imagery and words, it should be up to parents if their children read them.
In August, Barrington school board members also voted to keep “Gender Queer” in the Barrington High School library.
“We’re making these books available, but we’re not actively incorporating the books that were challenged into the curriculum,” said Chan Ding, a mother to an eight and a fourth grader.
As a mother, she said, she understands that some parents question the books and want to prevent access to them. “I have empathy for parents who disagree with our decision and I acknowledge and fully recognize that there’s a full spectrum of opinions. ... It is a parent’s responsibility and role to do what is best for their own child but that doesn’t mean restricting access to other people. “
Chan Ding said Chicago’s recent announcement creating book sanctuaries is “both encouraging and alarming.”
She worries that efforts to ban more titles will continue growing in suburbs. But she said she is glad that kids will have access to the books in their neighboring city.
Chicago Public Library Commissioner Chris Brown said, “Book bans threaten to silence the stories of people — most often from and representative of marginalized communities — and narrows the scope and diversity of the stories and perspectives we can share.”
The Book Sanctuary, he said, “aims to empower people everywhere to further demonstrate their support for books — and the people who love and protect them — by mobilizing action in their own communities.”
Brown invited Chicagoans to join by taking a pledge to create safe spaces for stories by launching their own book sanctuary at a library, classroom, coffee shop, public park or even a bedroom bookshelf.
The commitments include collecting and protecting endangered books, making endangered books broadly accessible, hosting book talks and events to generate conversation, including story times focused on diverse characters and stories, and educating others on the history of book banning and burning.
Brown said the Chicago Public Library’s facilities will be open to suburban readers: ”We have a role to make sure that our readers understand that they can always turn to us.”
Brown also invited other libraries and residents to use the guidelines that the library has made available.
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This story was originally published September 27, 2022 3:00 AM.