Get your banned books here: League of Women Voters featuring challenged works at fair

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 09-25-2023 8:35 AM

HOLYOKE — Inside Ann Wedaman’s home in Holyoke are boxes of books, more than 21,000 books roughly, that have been donated for a fundraising book sale planned by the Northampton area chapter of the League of Women Voters, an organization that Wedaman serves as one of its board of directors. Of those books, more than 1,000 of them have the distinction of having at some point been banned or challenged in libraries and school districts across America.

For some of the books, it’s not too hard to imagine why they might cause controversy — “To Kill a Mockingbird” for its discussions of racism and sexual assault, or “The Hunger Games” series for its violence and dystopian themes — but others might inspire more quizzical looks upon seeing them. Among the challenged books are works such as the classic children’s novel “Charlotte’s Web” and the famous picture book series “Where’s Waldo?”

“With ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ people didn’t like that the animals were talking,” Wedaman explains. “And that the spider died.”

Though books being challenged and banned in libraries and schools is far from a new phenomenon, the decision to include banned books in the league’s 73rd annual book sale came from a concern among members of the sudden rise in books being challenged in several states over the past few years.

“All of a sudden, it seems to be a big political issue,” said Margaret Riddle, who like Wedaman sits on the league’s board of directors for its Northampton chapter. “It’s not like before.”

Several attempts at restricting books across the country have grabbed national headlines over the past two years. In Florida, a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis restricting the teaching of gender and sexuality has led to over 300 instances of book removals across the state, according to the Florida Department of Education. In Texas, more than 800 books were banned across school districts in 2022, according to PEN America, a national nonprofit supporting the protection of free expression in literature.

“It’s very concerning that people would think part of their exercise of their own individual freedom means that they can also ban books that other people might like to read,” Riddle said. “We actually believe in individual freedom and people having the right to exercise it. So they should be able to read what they wish to read.”

While most of the current controversy over book bans comes from more politically conservative states like Texas and Florida, Riddle noted that Massachusetts, often thought of as a forerunner of liberal principles, is no exception to the current trend seeking bans.

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According to American Library Association data from 2022, the state outranks all other New England states when it comes to attempts to restrict access to certain books. Massachusetts ranks fourth among the states for the number of restriction attempts at libraries and school districts, behind only Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. (For context, it’s worth noting that the total number of book titles challenged in the Bay State was far lower than in several other states with fewer attempts, including Florida.)

Massachusetts also has the distinction of having the first ever ban in the country, when it outlawed the book “The New English Canaan” by Thomas Merton in 1637, deeming it heretical to the Puritan customs and culture then predominant in New England. Other notable bans in the state’s history include a ban in Boston of the Ernest Hemingway novels “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sun Also Rises” shortly after their publication, and a ban of the popular “Harry Potter” book series in the town of Wakefield in 2007.

“We think of ourselves in a different way,” Riddle said. “But it hasn’t stopped. It’s happening to this day in Massachusetts.”

Since the books sold at the League of Women Voters book sale are donated, many of the most recent books at the center of ongoing book ban controversies were not included. So the members of the league went out and purchased the books themselves to display among those that will be at the coming sale.

Such books purchased by the league include “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe describing the author’s non-binary gender identification, which was named most challenged book of 2022 by the ALA due its discussion of LGBTQ themes and depictions of sexuality. Also on the currently under fire shelf is “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson, a memoir of the author growing up as a queer Black man in New Jersey.

Then of course there is the children’s book “Heather has Two Mommies” by local author Leslea Newman, which has been challenged since it was first published in 1989.

Challenges to books are based a wide range of objections to them.

“Some of them are about death and dying,” said Wedaman on books that end up challenged or banned. “Some are about sex, or about suicide, or about gender identity. Other ones are about race.”

In addition to the banned books, the sale will have 16 other categories of books ranging from fantasy and science fiction to religion and spirituality.

The sale will take place on Saturday, Sept. 30 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, 80 Locust St. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the League of Women Voters, which supports expanding and protecting voting rights for American citizens. In addition, teachers in the area will be able to choose books for free to be used for their classrooms during the sale.

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