Nothing new on the site today, but it's Banned Books Week, so I am sharing this column I wrote for the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle in April about a failed censorship effort at our hometown library. The situation received regional attention both positive and negative, and while the books were ultimately returned, I still see it as a black mark on our community that we're maybe not yet recovered from. People are still afraid to talk about the impacts, talk on the record about the books... there's a lot of fear, and fear that surrounds the people who need the most support.
Growing up, I learned early on that if there are people trying to keep you from reading something, it's probably something you should read. I hate that we seem to have lost that in recent years...
I’ve been thinking more about the recent drama surrounding four books from the Millbury Public Library. For those just joining us, a thus far unnamed patron allegedly took four books with LGBTQ+ themes out from the library - three young adult books (Camp by L.C. Rosen, Jay’s Gay Agenda by Jason June, and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe) and a general fiction title (Lawn Boy by Jonathan Iveson) - and then told the library that they wouldn’t be returning them. It’s a long way to say the books were stolen from the library, but I’d prefer to give the accused the benefit of the doubt that they’ll return them before it escalates.
I won’t get into a lot of my specifics on what I’ve personally done in response; you can read about those efforts elsewhere, but I do want to talk about censorship a bit, because, among other reasons, books made my life immeasurably better, made me a better human, and the first amendment helps feed my kid.
As a lover of the written word and a voracious reader, I appreciate the art of library collection development and the range of what citizens can get from a public library. Massachusetts is also the envy of many of my friends from other states in that we have such a robust regional sharing system. It’s rare that I can’t find what I’m looking for: whether it’s an obscure history text (thanks, Assumption College!) or an independently published book on the Bram Stoker Award longlist (thanks, Milford Public Library!), I can hop onto the library website and probably find it.
It’s magical. Libraries are magical, and not just for finding interesting things to read. For many people, libraries are an escape. I’m not just talking about an escape to Hogwarts or Middle Earth, but an escape from a difficult family situation. An escape from being terrorized at school on a daily basis. An escape from a world at war during an international pandemic.
It’s an escape in other ways, too. For many kids, especially ones who are a racial or ethnic minority in their communities (Millbury, we should note, is nearly 92% white, and Sutton a little more so) or who identify as LGBTQ+ (estimated at approximately 5% of the overall population), books are an escape into a world that they don’t exist in themselves. If they’re the only Hispanic girl in their third grade class, or the only transgender senior at the high school, books may be the only opportunity they get to independently and objectively understand what they may be going through from an alternative perspective.
It’s good for the rest of us, too. Author Neil Gaiman once said “fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.” It’s one thing for a kid to read books about themselves and people like themselves, but it’s entirely another thing for someone like me, a straight middle-aged white dude in a 92% white town where 95% of the people likely share my sexual orientation and gender identity, to have access to these books. I’m never going to be a black teenager, so a book is arguably the closest I’m going to get to that. I never questioned my sexual orientation growing up (and, having gone to religious schools for my whole life and raised Catholic, had to unlearn a lot of what I thought I knew), but a book by a gay person talking about their experiences might be the best opportunity I have short of getting someone to sit down with me and recap their life story.
I can handle misinformation. I can handle disagreement. I can understand wanting to protect your child at all costs, and the desire to keep your kids safe from those who would bring them harm. This situation with the books at the library? It’s rooted in misinformation, for sure, but it’s weaponized misinformation - when I see parents on Facebook and Twitter accusing other parents in town of being “groomers,” or of enabling the most monstrous of crimes against a child, simply because a book depicts something they’re uncomfortable with? I can’t handle that. I can’t even begin to comprehend what would drive anyone to make such an accusation simply because of their beliefs about sexual education or the availability of certain books in a library (nearly always the books about marginalized groups, by the way). It’s harmful to the person being accused (not to mention arguably libelous), but also harmful to the victims of sexual abuse who are not only forced to relive it on a random website or app, but forced to watch their own legitimate trauma get trivialized to score imaginary points over the internet.
So when I hear that there are parents protesting the mere existence of books at the library that dare to present an alternative perspective, I get a little angry. When I hear that they took the books and expressed an intention to not return them, I get very angry. Because it’s not about me. It’s about the parent who has a child questioning their sexuality and, when they heard about this, thanked me for speaking up and said how they “appreciate this advocacy on behalf of families.” It’s about the teenager who fears going to school every day to face endless abuse from those who should be supportive peers. About the kid without parents capable of having mature conversations about the difficult parts of growing up, if they have parents at all.
It’s about the “longtime Millbury resident who grew up in a house that didn’t say gay,” and the absolute gravity of a statement like that which cuts directly into my heart every time I read it.
I don’t think the anger and vitriol and hatred we’ve seen and heard are who we are as a town, or as a society. I have to believe that, because the alternative is a society that I don’t want to be a part of at all.