September 30th, 2016; San Diego, California. The San Diego Central Library is a place where worlds meet, and not just in terms of books. Just a few blocks from the trendy parts of downtown, the library itself is clean, modern, and beautiful, with art scattered on every available surface. Across the street is a crumbling parking lot where groups of homeless people camp, some with tents and mattresses, some with barely a blanket, either sleeping or noisily passing time – whenever the trolley isn’t drowning them out. The contrast is palpable, and as a result, the neighborhood is emotional and raw. A fitting environment for today’s subject, then.
I’m at the Central Library to attend the 5th Annual All-Day Read-Aloud Read-a-thon, one of the events the San Diego Library has put on for the 2016 Banned Books Week. Running from noon to 5 PM, the event will present a successions of readers – all librarians or volunteers – reading a selection from a banned book of their choice. This year, the theme, as proclaimed by a huge poster on the podium, is “Stand up for your right to read”: a worthy theme, to be sure. I’m excited to be here.
As I step out onto the garden patio where the event is being held, I take a look at the lineup for readings for today, as well as the accompanying display of banned books available at the library. I can’t help but to notice how many of them are what you might call teen books: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, an age-old classic in the category of “banned YA books”; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a brilliant YA novel and the number one most challenged book of 2014; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, a well-loved classic that nevertheless tops “top most challenged books” lists from year to year. Certainly, it’s looking like a very interesting few hours.
A lady in the distinctive bob and evening dress of a flapper – Laurie Bailey of the SD Costume Guild – is already reading the first chapter of Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. She is followed on stage first by librarian Kelly Pepo who reads an excerpt of the aforementioned Are You There God?, then by Steve Torres-Roman, who delivers a chilling rendition of a scene in George Orwell’s 1984 and a chapter of Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I am astounded to find that Coraline has been banned from schools for being “too scary” for its target audience. It’s a haunting book for sure, but above all Coraline’s story is one of courage and independence. Banning it for being “too scary” for younger readers seems to me counterproductive, if anything, and certainly misses the entire point of the book.
As the readings go on, this becomes a common theme; most of the books in spotlight today have been banned for being “age-inappropriate” (among other complaints), and I have to wonder what exactly that is supposed to mean. Here, I feel, we are at the very heart of the issue, and the reason today’s event and the Banned Books Week are so important. Young adult literature has long been subject to this kind of policing, and it is crucial that we pay attention and speak out when we see it happen. It’s crucial that we stand up for our – and others’ – right to read.
Perhaps the most pointed performance of the day is Rachel Kuyper’s reading of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This bleak dystopian novel has been contested many times and for many reasons, but never so vehemently as now that it is required reading for AP English students. Some of the many reasons for its banning include “women’s issues.” Indeed, women’s issues are present in the book; The Handmaid’s Tale presents a biting discussion of women’s roles and agency. This story of a woman taken from her family and reduced into a sexual commodity – a sort of easy-bake oven of babies, if you will – for the benefit of a totalitarian society is, in many ways, one of the most viscerally feminist books ever written. That someone should consider it a reason to keep the book from younger readers makes me especially glad to be here today, engaging in the discourse. The society presented in The Handmaid’s Tale is disturbing, upsetting, offensive even, and those are precisely the reasons we should be reading this book, and other dystopias like it. It shows us what could be, and in doing so lets us examine our current society in a new light. Hearing The Handmaid’s Tale read aloud at a public library like this, without omitting a single graphic scene or swear word, gives me a kind of joy I had not expected, and I can’t help but to smile.
The reading continues, but it’s time for me to leave this sanctuary and return to the real world. Reluctantly, I get up and leave behind this place where all books can – and, indeed, should – be read aloud, even if they do contain “offensive language,” even if they are sexually explicit, and even if they are “age-inappropriate.”