To Knox, banning books an enemy to a free society

Emily Knox, an associate professor at the University of Illinois, spoke last week at Rantoul Public Library on the subject of book banning.

RANTOUL — Emily Knox said her favorite challenge of all time from a person wishing to have a book banned came from a man who didn’t like how a book on the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd portrayed the band and their native Alabama.  

Knox, an associate professor at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, is an expert on the book-banning subject. She said challenges to ban books come from the political left as well as from the right.

Knox, who spoke about the subject last week at Rantoul Public Library, said both sides have filed objections to the classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” In 2017, it held the seventh slot in the American Library Association’s top 10 most challenged and banned books. The reasons ranged from violence to offensive language to racism. Knox said some object to the book because of its “white savior narrative.”

Knox is author of the book “Book Banning in 21st Century America.” She said the reasons for people filing challenges to ban books range from objections to language to sexual content to even photos. The book “Birthday Cake for George Washington,” which was written by African Americans, was withdrawn by the publisher over objections that it showed photos of smiling slaves.

“(Those who objected) felt the book didn’t demonstrate how painful slavery was,” Knox said. “The publishers decided it wasn’t worth the controversy for that book.”

Junior high students book banning Oct. 2

J.W. Eater Junior High student Ava Haltiwanger speaks on the subject of banned books last week at Rantoul Public Library during Banned Books Week. Shown are, from left, Eater eighth-graders Sophia Swofford, Makanna Pruitt, Lizzy Deer, Katelynn Graham, Haltiwanger, Emma Keenan and Jania McDaniel. The books they discussed were “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton, “Yummy” by G. Neri, “Drama” by R. Telgemeir and “This One Summer” by M. Tamaki.

President of the Freedom to Read Foundation, Knox makes it clear. She stands against all bans of reading material — even books she finds objectionable or abhorrent. She said the freedom to read and hear all sides is part of a free society.

Book-restriction efforts don’t include just limiting its appearance on a shelf. Knox uses four Rs to categorize them:

— Redaction. There have been cases where objectionable lines have been blacked out by individuals. This most recently happened in Skokie.

— Removal. The book is eliminated from a collection.

— Restriction. Only certain people are allowed to have the book.

— Relocation. The book is moved so it is not available to the target audience for which it was intended. For instance, a book geared toward juveniles is moved to the adult section.

Challenges can come anywhere books are located — most commonly in schools and public libraries.

“When a book is identified for whatever reason as being a problem, somebody will go to the teacher or the librarian and say, ‘I don’t like this book and want something done with it,’” Knox said.

Often policies are in place in which the objector is asked to fill out a form. The objector is asked to read the book and indicate what the problem is.

“It’s not always that the person challenging the book is wrong. It could be that the book is in the wrong place in the library,” Knox said.

When the issues are not resolved, the challenge generally proceeds to the board governing the library or school, and a hearing is conducted. Knox tries to attend many of the challenge hearings — not to comment but for informational purposes.

She calls book banning “an entirely futile act.”

“In our day and age, it makes no sense to say that you can’t have this book,” she said. “I can get the book from Amazon. I can get it from Torrent. I can have my friends send me the book. When Judy Blume’s books were being criticized, the books were being handed around. Now it’s so easy to get a book.”

Words have power. Knox said her favorite book, which she did not name, changed her life.

“It made me a different person, and I think that’s what people need to keep in mind when they try to ban a book,” Knox said. “Reading can change your values, open you up to different values. That is why it’s so important.”

Knox went through a list of 2017 challenged books, and nine of them related to diversity.

One is “The Hate U Give” that deals with the Black Lives Matter movement. The book was challenged in Katy, Texas, and the objector wrote they saw “no literary value to this book.”

Other books to which challenges have been filed have included “I Am Jazz,” “A Tango Makes Three,” “George,” “Drama” “The Kite Runner,” “Sex is a Funny Word” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

In studying the cases, Knox said many of those objecting suggest alternative books “as if stories are interchangeable.”

Book bannings became more prevalent in the 18th Century when naturalistic novels came into print, including “Huckleberry Finn.” In that case, people object to the use of the N word.

“This year ‘Skippyjon Jones’ was attacked by the left for being a poor work of diversity,” said Knox, who said that will be her “next project,” to examine that case.

Knox has also taken interest in a recent case in which 200 books were removed from the Danville Correctional Center library and have since been returned. It appears the books were pulled from the African-American section, she said, although some others were also taken away.

On Tuesday night, students from J.W. Eater Junior High School also spoke at the library about the banned-books subject. They also provided art work.

Rantoul Public Library  Director Holly Thompson said there have been no challenges to any of the books there while she has served as librarian. Donna Miner, Rantoul City Schools librarian, said she has never received any book challenges at RCS, although while she was at Oakwood schools, a family indicated it would file a challenge to “Pretty Little Liars,” but they never formally filed to be placed on the Oakwood school board agenda. Miner said Lincoln Trails Library personnel were prepared to attend the meeting to rebut the challenge.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com