Kit Lewers ’19 was in third grade when her Georgia school district banned Harry Potter. Just like that, a series of blockbuster children’s books disappeared from the library shelves, leaving Lewers to wonder why something so beloved was off-limits.
But it didn’t stop her from devouring stories. Or from growing up to become an English major who this week stood in front of Lee Hall at the University of Mary Washington reading from the pages of another forbidden work in recognition of Banned Books Week.
The annual awareness campaign promoted by the American Library Association shines a light on books that have routinely been banned or challenged around the country – and celebrates the freedom to express all ideas, no matter how unorthodox or unpopular.
Banned Books Week began in the 1980s as the Supreme Court weighed whether school officials could ban books in libraries based solely on their content. (They can’t.) Yet books continue to face challenges in 2018. Among the most recent to face regular objections: the literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird and a children’s board book called Tango Makes Three that tells the story of two male penguins who make a family together.
The UMW community has marked the week for the last two years with a Read Out, a gathering of students, faculty and administrators who read excerpts from books deemed too dangerous at some time or other. They’ll assemble again today on Campus Walk in front of Lee Hall – in the University Center if it rains – from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
“We want to protect everyone’s freedom to read. Banning books is an assault on that liberty,” said James Pape, outreach librarian at Simpson Library, which sponsors the Read Out along with the Department of English, Linguistics and Communication and the University Bookstore.
“As a university, we explore a lot of ideas,” said Assistant Professor of English Brenta Blevins. “We need to be open to engaging with ideas that are challenging.”
UMW President Troy Paino kicked off Tuesday’s event by reading from the final pages of Catcher in the Rye, a routinely challenged coming of age novel published in 1951.
Paino described the book as among his favorites, one that had a profound impact on him as a high schooler. And he underscored UMW’s role as a liberal arts institution to cultivate the freedom of expression.
Banning books, he said, is something “we are foursquare against.”
Among Tuesday’s readers were UMW Provost Nina Mikhalevsky and Vice President for Administration and Finance Lynne Richardson.
Lewers signed up for the Read Out after Blevins asked for volunteers. She’d never been involved in something like this before. But she still remembered how her hometown took Harry Potter off the library shelves.
“I was one of a few in the county whose parents let them read it,” she said. In fact, her parents had read the books to her before she ever started school.
This week, Lewers held a copy of another book that has faced challenges, plucked from a list of commonly banned titles and another staple of her childhood: Gone With the Wind.
It was set in Georgia, where she’d grown up. Its author, Margaret Mitchell, was also from Georgia, where she remained revered more than 80 years after the book’s publication. Lewers had read it at least five times. She’s visited Mitchell’s home.
“It’s so normal in Georgia,” she said. Yet the book was banned by a California school district for its portrayal of slaves and for the way the heroine behaved, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
Reading it as a child, Lewers said, “I knew slavery was bad.”
When she picked it up again recently for the first time in years, she began to grasp the greater complexities of it. She saw it in a new light.
But that was the thing. Books, even controversial ones, don’t belong in the dark.