Banned Books Week has never had an honorary chair before but unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Jason Reynolds will be the first honorary chair of Banned Books Week and he is excited about it! This year marks the 39th celebration of Banned Books Week since its first celebratory year in 1982. The 2021 theme is Books Unite Us; Censorship Divides Us and it will take place from September 26th to October 2nd.
Jason Reynolds exploded onto the literary scene in 2014 with his first novel for teens, When I Was the Greatest. This book won him the 2015 Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Reynolds hit the ground running as far as intellectual freedom and censorship goes. Concerned parents from a Brooklyn middle school objected to the cover art for When I Was the Greatest, which features the image of a yarn-bombed handgun. For those who don’t know, yarn bombing is the art of covering something completely in a colorful crocheted facade.
What did Reynolds say back then? Besides advising folks to read the actual book he said, “In my mind I see the cover as yin and yang, that everything in our lives has a balance between hard and soft.” I think I agree with him. Sometimes life is soft, like The Lorax being challenged for showing the California logging industry in a negative light. We put it on our Banned Books Week displays year after year. We laugh with patrons about how ridiculous it was to challenge Dr. Seuss back in the 1980s. What a silly reason to challenge a book! It was a good way to bring kids into the free speech conversation.
… And then sometimes life is hard, like And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street being removed from publishing entirely by Seuss Enterprises for its racist illustrations. Do we put it in our Banned Books Week displays? Will someone steal it? Do we keep it on the shelf with the other Seuss titles? Do we put it behind the desk by request only? How can we maintain patron privacy with that service model? Is keeping it on the shelf damaging to patrons of color? Can we afford to be neutral on a moving train? Be sure to checkout Intellectual Freedom is Meaningless Without Social Justice on June 24th. There is a lot more to talk about at ALA Annual 2021, that is for sure.
Remember at ALA Annual 2019 in Washington DC when Jason Reynolds gave the keynote speech? He commented on being the follow-up to Michelle Obama’s keynote in 2018. None of us knew it at the time, but that would be the last in-person Annual Conference for at least two years. It was a legendary performance, leading up to a double on the Top 10 of 2020 List.
Each year we take National Library Week to reflect on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of the previous calendar year. This April, the 2020 list came out and there was a glaring trend that mirrored current American culture. The books that Americans censored the most were books about being a Black, Indigenious, or person of color (BIPOC) while in America. In previous years, LGBTQIA+ content seemed to take the cake, so the sharp change to almost exclusively BIPOC content did not go unnoticed. Reynolds is on this list for the first time. Once for Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You and again for All American Boys.
When we all went online in 2020, he started a series of Instagram live videos directed at children to keep their minds creative during the shelter in place. He connects with young people in a unique way. I think this is great because many of the titles that get challenged are intended for children, students, or young adults. What does Reynolds have to say now?
“I’m excited about this year’s theme, which is so simple, yet so powerful. What does it mean when we say, ‘Books unite us?’ It means that books are the tethers that connect us culturally. Stories ground us in our humanity; they convince us that we’re not actually that different and that the things that are actually different about us should be celebrated because they are what make up this tapestry of life.”
We are also excited about this year’s theme and our very first Honorary Chair! And be sure to let the Office of Intellectual Freedom know if you have any instances of censorship to report — and that does not just include books. Here is the link to the Challenge Report form, which is confidential.
Holly Eberle is the Teen Programming and Outreach Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in Illinois. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. In addition to intellectual freedom, she is also passionate about the opioid epidemic and getting Narcan inside every public library.