Rising to the Challenge of Banned Books
In this age of the Internet and its facilitation of the widespread dissemination of information, the concept of banning a physical book might seem a bit outdated.
But if you think that acts of literary censorship are a thing of the past, Justin Stanley would be one of the first to tell you that you are wrong. He says that books are being challenged and banned across the United States with staggering frequency.
“We get a few hundred challenges per year in this country — they happen pretty regularly,” says Stanley, president of The Uprise Books Project, a nonprofit, literary advocacy organization based in Vancouver, Washington.
The project’s mission is to support underprivileged teens ages 13-18 by providing them with an incentive to read: the “forbidden fruit” of banned books. Uprise leverages the sensation and attention that banned books attract to entice students to read and explore literature.
Working with books that are considered by some to be taboo allows Stanley to connect two of his passions: fighting censorship and encouraging literacy. Stanley understands that parents should have the right to monitor what their kids read and learn at home, but that one parent’s perspective may not necessarily be in line with the ideas of other parents or teachers in public education.
Over the years, famously banned books like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and even works by children’s authors like Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax have been pulled from stores and removed from schools and public libraries. Stanley says that some books are targeted because they suggest ideas and perspectives that might deviate from popular norms, or from the beliefs of those in the position to make decisions for large groups of people.
“It usually comes from a parent [of one of the students] or some adult in the community who has issued a challenge to that organization to try to get that book removed or controlled in some fashion,” Stanley says.
And that’s where Uprise enters the picture. Working with students and organizations across the country, Uprise implements a two-pronged approach regarding its outreach and its goal to “end cycles of poverty through literacy.”
“The first is trying to get kids access to the books; we do that by raising funds and actually working with teachers and students individually to send [banned] books to the kids,” explains Stanley.
The second part involves raising awareness through the connective power of the Internet.
“We use our social media, our Twitter feed, our Facebook page and our website. And we work with other organizations to make sure that people are aware of what’s going on and to try to respond to challenges as they might come up,” Stanley says.
Uprise’s response can come in a variety of ways. Most often, teachers from across the country contact the organization to request copies of a book that has a history of being banned. (Even though teachers might work with Uprise to procure the book, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the book has been banned in their own schools or districts.) Driven by a mainly volunteer staff, Uprise uses funds that it raises to procure, package and distribute the banned books to those who have requested them. To date, Uprise, which was honored by the National Book Foundation with its annual Innovations in Reading Prize last year, has provided over 2,000 books to teachers, schools and individual students nationwide.
In the early part of this year, one of the most challenged books of 2012, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, was challenged by a school district in Sweet Home, Oregon. The book is often targeted due to its frank discussion of sexuality and its unfiltered use of language that some people find offensive.
Although Uprise has not yet been asked to provide Alexie’s book to schools, he notes that the subject matter and themes found in this novel are among the types that commonly attract bans and challenges.
“The types of books vary from kids books, to classic literature, to books on human growth and development,” says Stanley. “Language is a common reason, sexuality of any type, homosexuality, any sort of gay/lesbian content is a big factor right now.”
The challenge to Alexie’s book in Sweet Home was considered and eventually overturned.
Sweet Home, Oregon, votes to keep my YA novel in their school. Awesome! http://t.co/gwPOFaDm9k— Sherman Alexie (@Sherman_Alexie) February 14, 2014
However, It didn’t take long for the book to find a challenger in another state where a school board in Meridian, ID has decided to remove the book from the district’s recommended reading list.
My book banned in Meridan, ID (a small city next to Boise): http://t.co/kTeW7Y9kVs— Sherman Alexie (@Sherman_Alexie) April 2, 2014
Stanley also referred to ongoing challenges from some religious groups who may consider fantasy stories with plotlines that incorporate witchcraft and fantasy magic as being in conflict with religious traditions.
“The Harry Potter books are some of the most frequently banned and challenged books from the first decade of this century. The types of books run the whole gamut,” explains Stanley.
For Stanley, who was inspired to start The Uprise Books Project after taking a course on social entrepreneurship as part of the Master of Business Administration program at Portland State University (PSU), the organization achieves his goal of bringing his personal emotions and family history into alignment with his academic pursuits.
“I grew up in a family that didn’t have a whole lot. I was raised by a single mother, so I relate to a lot of these kids that are growing up in these impoverished communities and don’t have access to books. It’s kind of shocking to me that in this country books are still banned and challenged with what I would consider to be alarming frequency,” Stanley says.
During his coursework at PSU, Stanley developed a feasibility analysis for an original not-for-profit social venture. After that, he says, everything came together.
“Poverty and literacy and censorship — one day, I just had the ‘eureka! moment’ — what if we could tie all these things together?”
Cindy Cooper is the director and cofounder of a group of Impact Entrepreneurs embedded within PSU’s business school.
“Our mission is ‘unleashing the power of business for social impact,’ which we express through initiatives that inspire, incubate and accelerate social change through innovative, entrepreneurial approaches,” said Cooper via email. “A current major focus is an innovative online certificate in The Business of Social Innovation. The program aspires to bring together participants from all stages of life, cultures and disciplines for the applied study of social entrepreneurship and social innovation.”
The program began offering its first courses this past January, and even though Uprise predated the formal establishment of the certificate program, Stanley credits Cooper and the Business School’s commitment to social entrepreneurship for helping to inspire his organization.
Stanley sees banned and challenged books as a key to not just fighting censorship, but to creating emotional and social connection between stories and the kids who read them. Providing access to the books for children and teachers is one thing, but capitalizing on the “forbidden fruit element” seems to take care of the rest.
“Once you get the books into the kids’ hands, you have to make sure that they have some kind of incentive to read them,” Stanley says.
Not only can the taboo nature of banned books spark a child’s desire to read, but apparently it can have a similar effect on book sales.
I just got my biannual royalty check. Thank you, book banners, for making my YA novel so popular.— Sherman Alexie (@Sherman_Alexie) April 7, 2014