As Banned Books Week marks its 30th anniversary this year, the Storm Lake Public Library continues its efforts to fight censorship with a display of the past year's 10 most challenged and chastised books.
"Sharing of ideas is important to our way of life. We as individuals need to make the decisions on the kinds of information we want to have - and we need to make sure we're not allowing someone else to make those decisions for us," said Library Director Misty Gray, who has been acting out against censorship for years.
The library display is wrapped on fiery book-burner colors, crime scene "caution" tape and "danger" signs. The approach is tongue-in-cheek, but the issue is serious.
Since 1990, the American Library Association has recorded more than 10,000 attempts to ban books. Favorites like Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," "Slaughterhouse Five," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the "Harry Potter" series and "To Kill a Mockingbird" have all been challenged.
In Storm Lake, it has been years since the public has tried to force the library to ban a book.
"Here in Storm Lake we have a very diverse culture, and with that comes the need for diverse ideas. I think that we are very fortunate that our particular community has seemed very open minded," Gray says.
The local library board has established a policy for use in choosing materials that will be added or removed from the collection - and it isn't based on sex or politics or language.
"One criteria is simply how much money we have to spend," Gray notes. "We consider our mission and community service roles, reviews from reliable sources, awards or merit that the item may have received from literary industry standards, and if it is being requested, that is important to us too. We can't preview every item we purchase, and we do not shy away from certain subjects."
That means that there is always the possibility that patrons will find language or images that may shock them.
"I can tell you straight out that we have numerous examples of 'bad' language in our books, but we have numerous examples of 'good' language too," she laughs. "Whether something is important or offensive is something each person has to decide on their own. One person might really get into that book, and the next might quickly realize it is not for them."
In the latter case, does a person try to challenge having that book in the public forum?
"What you do is close the book and bring it right back to us," Gray says.
The list of Most Challenged Books changes from year to year.
The two most attacked books this year are also ones considered by many others to be American classics - "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "A Brave New World."
"It is interesting to see the reasoning of people who would want to censor books. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is being challenged because of instances of racism - but that is exactly what the book is about. To me, that language is in there to make us think about and realize the effects of racism."
A children's picture book rests in the endangered books display - "Where Do Babies Come From?" picturing a cartoon child hugging his very pregnant mother's belly on the cover. "People are saying it is sex education and it doesn't belong in public. As a parent though, I remember when my children were starting to ask questions like that, and instead of trying to stumble through some kind of answer, I went to the library looking for a book just like this to use. It is a perfect example of how a book that one person sees as great and informative, another sees as troubling and highly offensive," Gray says.
For as long as the Storm Lake Library has been participating in censorship-fighting efforts, the most-attacked books have always been those targeted at young adults. Of the 10 books on this year's list, seven fall into that category.
"Most of the time, people are challenging the kind of candid topics these books tend to explore these days," the librarian says. "While children may be encountering these issues as they grow up in our society, I think there is always a part of us as adults with that desire to keep our children young just a little longer."
Such books, however, often play a critical role, Gray feels. "A book gives that young person a place to go, where they can find through a story that they are not the only one struggling with the feelings and things that are happening in their lives. I'm not saying a book should be anybody's sole resource as they try to cope with any kind of issues in their lives, but sometimes, they can make a difference."
Whether your taste is blush-worthy stories or squeaky-clean information, Gray encourages everyone to read a wide range of books and stretch their knowledge and imagination. "I like to think there is a story out there for everyone."
Banned Book Week was first held in 1982 in response to a sudden rise in the number of challenges to books available in stores, schools and libraries. Ban attempts have run the gamut from the dictionary to Anne Frank, Hemingway to Howard Stern, Harry Potter to "The Color Purple." Some libraries host virtual "read outs" of challenged books, while a facility in Indianapolis has an author living in its front window for the week.
"Censorship is the enemy of truth, even more than a lie," said journalist and author Bill Moyers, a national co-chair for the Banned Books Week program. "A lie can be exposed; censorship can prevent us from knowing the difference."