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Wanda Mae Huffaker wears a pin that has a picture of a book and a bullhorn, and the words “Speak Out! For Banned Books.”
Huffaker, who has been a librarian in the Salt Lake County Library system since 1993, has become an expert on banned and challenged books — a topic that has received more and more attention of late, with school districts in Utah and across the country.
“I think our very democracy is at risk when we start [banning books], because it puts at threat the First Amendment,” Huffaker said, citing the section of the Bill of Rights that enshrines the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the right to redress grievances.
Banning books, she said, “goes against my very core” — and in her nearly 30 years as a librarian, censorship is a topic that’s always been around, but has become more intense in the last few years.
“Every parent has to choose for their own child what they should read, but only their own child. That’s like our mantra,” she said firmly.
According to PEN America, the nonprofit free-speech advocacy group, 156 bills proposing what it calls “educational gag orders” have been introduced in 39 states since January 2021 — and 12 of them, in 10 states, have already become law.
Meanwhile, the incidents of school boards taking action against books that are deemed “controversial” are mounting:
• In January, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about his father’s ordeal surviving the Holocaust, in which Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats. Board members said they objected to swear words in the text, nude imagery of a woman — which was used in depicting Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide.
• Also in January, the school board in Mukilteo, Wash., removed Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the required ninth-grade reading list in English and language arts classes. The board responded to at least one parent’s complaint that the book, which chronicles life in Alabama in the 1950s and includes the trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman, is racially insensitive.
• Last November, the Canyons School District in Salt Lake County removed nine books from library shelves — violating the district’s own policies — after parents complained. The books are now under review.
• And the Murray School District, also in Salt Lake County, put on hold a diverse book program after parents complained about “Call Me Max,” a book about a transgender boy.
How banning a book works
Utah has a long history with censorship — starting with Reed Smoot, the U.S. senator from Utah who, in 1930, railed against such imported smut as D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Kama Sutra,” Casanova’s memoirs, and some of the poetry of Robert Burns.
At the Ruth Vine Tyler library branch in Midvale, where Huffaker is based, another librarian, Kathryn Kidd, has two children in the Canyon district. She said she has read most of those nine books removed from shelves in the Canyons district, and she enjoyed them.
Kidd is a newer librarian, compared to Huffaker. She’s been working as a teen services librarian for 3-½ years, and said she hasn’t dealt with a lot of censorship issues herself, but there are a fair amount of challenges.
When it comes to actually getting a certain book banned, the process is a bit more complicated. In fact, Utahns don’t see a lot of banned books.
“I was kind of proud of that for a lot of years — how people in Utah are so good we hardly ever ban books, that only happens in Texas or Tennessee,” said Huffaker, who was for 10 years a chair of the Utah Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, and is a trustee for the Freedom to Read Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the American Library Association.
Huffaker attributed Utah’s hands-off approach to the state’s overall identity. “I think it’s because here in Utah, we all believe that everyone gets to choose for themselves. It’s what we’re born with, this great gift,” she said. “We have to choose for ourselves what we’re going to do.”
Kidd described the challenge process like this: Patrons who have concerns with topics or content are encouraged to talk to librarians, like herself, who are experts in their respective fields.
If the conversation doesn’t assuage any worries, the patron is invited to fill out a reconsideration form online, which then goes to a committee of librarians from the county, who talk about the book and determine how to move forward. In some cases, that means moving a book from the teen section to the adult section — but, in general, it takes a lot of convincing to get a book banned outright.
The Salt Lake County Library system is working to refine the process, since Huffaker is an expert and she’s looking to retire. Her efforts with the team are to make the process more objective.
“Our goal is to not censor what they can access, so they can learn and make decisions for themselves,” Kidd said.
Lately, Huffaker said, there’s been an increase in censorship efforts aimed at graphic novels — “Maus” is a prime example — and that over the years, themes of racial diversity, LGBTQ+ representation and coming-of-age consistently have been challenged.
When it comes to book challenges, Huffaker said, “for the most part, people who challenge books truly have the best interests of people at heart.”
Though both Kidd and Huffaker agree there’s nothing to be gained from banning books, the process and dialogue of challenges allows librarians to connect more with patrons, and clue them into what goes into selecting books.
Kidd said, “I feel like sometimes librarians are made out to be like, ‘Oh, they’re just using our money to buy all these low-quality bad books,’ but that’s not how I see it. I see it as always trying to work with the community when there’s a demand, and [to meet] whatever their needs are.”
Huffaker added that the process, “from the moment someone comes into our library and sits down and talks with a staff member, should all be done out of respect and consideration for their opinions and how they feel, how we interact. The whole process should not be antagonistic.”
That antagonism is growing, though, because of concentrated campaigns on one side of the political spectrum, Huffaker said.
“We’ve got all these people that are so conservative, that are banning all these books, writing all these letters all over the whole country, but here in Utah, too,” Huffaker said.
On raising well-rounded adults
Katie Wegner has been a librarian with the Summit County Library branch for five years, as well as the co-chair of the Utah State Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.
Wegner, who is moving to the Salt Lake City library system, said Summit County does not receive a lot of book challenges. She has noticed, however, that social media has given rise to controversies around banning and even burning books.
Wegner said she believes people are using social media “as a tool to organize and flag books, and [to] share a list of books that are being deemed inappropriate, even though they’re not necessarily reading or checking [them] out.”
When such lists target hundreds upon hundreds of titles, Wegner said, it’s tough to have civic discussions with the people who create them.
When it comes to parents’ rights groups who want to outright ban certain titles, Wegner said those groups seem “disconnected. … I think people want to shelter their kids from anything that’s uncomfortable, instead of having those conversations.”
For some teens, Wegner said, certain books help them feel seen and heard in ways that the people near them can’t. “As librarians, we see the difference books can make to teens,” she said. “It’s scary to see that attacked.”
Many of these current challenges, Wegner said, “aren’t so much about the books themselves. It’s more of an attack on public education.”
Both Huffaker and Kidd echoed Wegner’s concerns, citing that those who wish to curtail what books teenagers can read are not encouraging the growth of well-rounded adults with critical thinking skills.
“I firmly believe that with books and everything else, [if] we’ve shielded and protected them and banned books and everything else all along the way, when they’re 18, then they will be lost. They will not know how to make choices,” Huffaker said.
Everyone, Huffaker said, “are all part of this, not just librarians. The freedom to read is essential to democracy, to free people. And if we lose that, you don’t get freedom back. It takes all of us to fight for it. We need everyone to fight for it.”
Wegner shares a petition tool for patrons to sign, to have their voices heard in the conversation of censorship.
Huffaker has taken positive action to keep banned books alive: Last Christmas, she gave such books to all her grandchildren.
The librarians had one last bit of advice, something they have instilled in their own children: If you don’t like a book, close it, don’t read it, and find a new one.