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A Local Look at Banned Books Week

Tolerance, diversity stave off controversy in Oak Park and River Forest institutions.

The term “banned in Boston” has never crept into Oak Park or River Forest’s phraseology.

Libraries and school districts in both communities strongly endorse the freedom to read, the mantra at the heart of Banned Books Week, which begins Saturday and concludes Oct. 1.

Sponsored by American Library Association and the American Library Association, Banned Books Week also focuses on the importance of the First Amendment, celebrates the freedom to choose and the freedom to express one's opinion even if it's unorthodox.

Banned Books Week centers on the list of books that for one reason or another end up being the most challenged. They're the books routinely yanked from school and public libraries. A YouTube Virtual Read-Out from some volumes is linked here.

But that's not the case in Oak Park and River Forest. Patrons haven't asked local libraries to pull The Diary of Anne Frank or Nickel and Dimed or Brave New World — all titles which ended up on this year’s banned books lists (and similar lists in years past).

Why not? The area's top library officials say it's because the area is highly educated, tolerant, engaged and respectful.

"[Oak Parkers] value diversity and the gifts that diversity bring,” said Deirdre Brennan, executive director of the .

Blaise Dierks, head of adult services at the said patrons at the facility at 735 Lathrop Ave. make up a "great community of library lovers, people who love learning and education."

Questions, Not Challenges at Institutions

Patrons of local libraries won’t find Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Joy of Sex stashed away on secretive back room shelves as in the past. But they will occasionally question why some materials are available at all.

For example, Brennan recalled one patron who wanted to know why a book on hacking was in the library's collection. It wasn’t a request to remove the book, but the patron wondered why it's carried on the shelves.

“It’s not like Harry Potter or Catcher in the Rye, where intellectual freedom is brought into question,” she said.

Librarians also question if the collections are balanced and represent different viewpoints on hot-button topics. Take, for example, global warming.

Dierks said one patron suggested buying a book that presented the viewpoint that global warming was a myth. After some deliberation, research and reviews, the library staff selected an authoritative author. 

Much of the concern, librarians say, stems from parents looking to know what's suitable for their kids to read and what's not. “They want to find out if [a book] fits with their family values,” said Margaret Banerji, head of River Forest’s young adult services.

The concern naturally spills over to schools.

School librarians say one of the main issues they face is youngsters who want to read materials that may be considered too “old” for them.

Kathy Rolfes, media specialist at , said one of those books Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which is on this year's Banned Books list.

The series is set in a brutal future world, where children are required to fight to the death in gladiatorial-like games. It's meant for middle-school age children, but “we wouldn’t want a second grader checking it out,” she said.

Another concern, school librarians say, centers on book topics. Some parents might not want their children checking out military books or graphic novels, so parents can flag certain topics and titles and restict their child from taking out a certain book.

But certainly books that may be controversial elsewhere are on the shelves. One is And Tango Makes Three, the story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo that raise a baby penguin. The book was banned in Charlotte, N.C. and a number of other libraries because of its depiction of unconventional families. In Oak Park, five of the eight elementary school libraries have it, Rolfes said.

“We do not shy away from controversial titles that are well reviewed. We try to focus on broad groups of readers and families," Rolfes said.

The final decision of whether a book will be added rests with the principal, she added.

Rare Reconsiderations

At least once, received a request to consider materials. It came as part of a controversy that swirled around the addition of material related to non-traditional families, including gay and lesbian families, to the Beye School libary.

One book in particular, a photo essay compilation of bi-racial and other kinds of families, drew some ire. Eventually, a committee of administrators, librarians, teachers and staff – all from outside of Beye School – examined the appropriateness of the materials and deemed them suitable, Beye Principal Jonathan Ellwanger said.

At , a parent came forward in the early 1990s questioning whether an anthology of African-American poetry was appropriate because a poem contained a graphic description of rape. OPRF staffers reviewed the poem and the anthology, and late found it suitable, said Don Vogel, the former director of OPRF’s library.

It's part of the school's stance on refusing to shy away from controversial books.

Phil Prale, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, noted, for example, that Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, remains on a summer reading list for incoming freshmen. A National Book Award winner, it was retained on the summer reading list at Antioch High School in 2009 despite objections that the language was violent and racist. Prale said the district stuck with it because it's compelling, well-writte and presents the teen viewpoint on issues.

“We want to provide a good broad range of experiences for students,” he said.

If parents object to a book, teachers will make every attempt to find a book that will still meet the course objectives, Prale said. The ultimate decision of whether a book remains part of the school’s curriculum rests with the District 200 board of education, he added.

Freedom: Taken for Granted?

Librarians say that their communities have been fortunate that they haven’t had to face bans that have happened elsewhere.

Earlier this year, a high school board in Republic, Mo. banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler’s book Twenty Boy Summer from the curriculum and school library after they were deemed inappropriate, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the deputy director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, a group responsible for educating librarians and the public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries.

The challenge was brought by a business teacher at Missouri State College who felt that Vonnegut’s book contained “enough profanity to make a sailor blush. Ockler’s book was similarly dangerous, according to Huffington Post.

Back in Oak Park, Brennan said some of the library's offering will inevitably offend someone, so it's up to librarians to be aware of the incredible diversity of opinion, as well as the Library Bill of Rights

"It’s very easy to take it [freedom to read] for granted,” she said. “I think there would be a fair number of people who would be in support of the library’s position if materials were to be challenged.”

The Oak Park Public Library will sponsor two Banned Books Weeks events. You can pose with your favorite banned book from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 24 to Oct. 1 at the second floor service desk of the Main Branch, 834 Lake St. If you don't have one, the library will supply you with one. On Tuesday Sept. 27, excerpts from the most frequently challenged books of 2010 will be read and explained as part of a City Lit Theater Company presentation at 7 p.m. at the main library. For more information, call the library at 708-383-8200 or log on to the library's website here.

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