NEW ULM – This week visitors to the second floor of the New Ulm Public Library will see an exhibition of some of the most popular and controversial books in their collection.
The exhibit is part of the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual Forbidden Books Week. For the past 39 years, the ALA has celebrated the Contested Books during the last week of September.
The aim of the week is to promote the freedom to read and to raise awareness about books that face the greatest challenges and organized protest.
Anytime a library, school or media center receives a formal request to remove a book from its collection, this is considered a challenge. Hundreds of challenges are submitted to libraries each year.
Over the past year, the 10 most contested books have been “The hate you give” by Angie Thomas; “The bluest eye” by Toni Morrison; “Of mice and Men” by John Steinbeck; “Kill a mockingbird” by Harper Lee; “Something happened in our city: a child’s story about racial injustice”, by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie; “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson; “All the American boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; “Stamped: racism, anti-racism and you” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds and “George” by Alex Gino.
This year, nine of the ten most contested books are available in one or more libraries in New Ulm. The New Ulm Public Library has a copy of nine of the books.
“Something happened in our city” is the only book that the library does not currently have. The library at Martin Luther College (MLC) also has several books. At least half of the ten most contested books are in the campus library.
These books have faced numerous censorship attempts nationwide but not in New Ulm. None of the local libraries reported receiving a formal challenge regarding reading materials in the past year.
MLC Library Director Linda Kramer said there had been no challenges to the college’s collection for at least eight years.
Even though the college doesn’t receive a book challenge, Kramer said the MLC has a formal process to challenge a book. Anyone who issues a formal challenge is first asked if they have read the entire book.
“Context is important” Kramer said. A person can request the removal of a book because of a single passage read out of context. This unique passage might not be representative of the work as a whole.
The director of Ulm’s new public library, Paulina Poplawska, said the library had not received any challenges for more than two years.
The last time the library was given a challenge was for the children’s book “The beach at night.” The book was originally written in Italian and translated into English. The concern at the time was about the relevance of the language in the book being in the children’s section.
Ulm’s New Public Library also has a formal challenge process. A formal written request for removal from the book must be submitted. Poplawska said people usually don’t take this step, even if they’re unhappy with a book.
Poplawska said the most contested list is cyclical in nature. Some books tend to come back to this list every few years. This year “Of mice and Men” and “Kill a mockingbird” made a comeback in the top ten most contested books. Neither was on last year’s most contested list, but both books are still among the most contested.
Poplawska said it was probably related to school curricula. “Kill a mockingbird” and “Of mice and Men” are required readings in many schools and this extra attention creates controversy.
It is not uncommon for the most contested books to be the most popular. “The hate you give” is the 10th most contested book of the last year and is also an extremely popular book at the New Ulm Public Library.
The “Harry Potter” The series didn’t make the ten most difficult list this year, but it did make the list last year and several years before. “Harry Potter” is also one of the most popular book series in history.
Fiction for young adults is another common trend in contested books. An oft-cited reason why a book is contested is that it is deemed inappropriate for the target age group. More than half of the books on the hardest list were written for young adults or children.
The most contested book of the last year was that of Alex Gino “George” that was written for college kids. It was the most contested book two years in a row.
There was a new trend in this year’s Most Contested Books list. Several of the books added to this list dealt with issues of racism. Many challenges claimed that these books contained an anti-police bias.
“The hate you give” is about a 16-year-old black girl who witnesses a white policeman shoot and kill her childhood friend and the social upheaval that follows.
“Something has happened in our city” is a children’s book about families discussing racial police shootings.
“All the American boys” is a novel told from the perspective of an African American boy and a Caucasian boy. The African American boy is assaulted by a white policeman in the book.
“Kill a mockingbird” is an older book, but it centers around the trial of a black man for a crime he didn’t commit and is ultimately killed when he tries to escape.
Youth Services Librarian Kathryn Tatnall said that with Critical Race Theory and Geoge Floyd’s trial in the news, it was becoming a popular topic in the literature.
“As someone who buys young adult books for the library, I can confirm that the subject has been important for the past two years,” Tatnall said.
Although the New Ulm Libraries have most of the disputed books in their collection, this was not intentional.
“We don’t intend to be controversial” Tatnall said. “We try to give information that should be a mirror of the community but also a mirror of the world.”
In general, libraries strive to have as large and varied a collection as possible and try to avoid censoring information. Even when a library does not have a particular book, there are methods to obtain the book, such as interlibrary loans. The Traverse des Sioux Librarian Cooperative has a large collection available to library users.
Local libraries will work together to provide patrons with reading material. The MLC library is accessible to more than students and campus staff. The new Ulm Public Library cards are valid at the MLC Library and MLC students can use their university cards at the City Library.
The ALA notes that although attempts to ban books continue every year, in the majority of cases books are never removed from collections and remain available. In truth, few books celebrated during Forbidden Book Week are banned.