When the Nampa School Board ordered 22 books banned from its school libraries “forever” earlier this month out of concerns about “pornography,” three of them were options on the recommended reading list for AP English classes in the Nampa School District. They won’t be any more.
The three: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer, and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.
“My son just finished AP English,” said a stunned Bruce DeLaney, co-owner of Rediscovered Bookshop, which has been organizing widely supported efforts to give away the banned books to local students at a June 8 event in Nampa. “You’re not looking at a 5-year-old reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ You’re talking about a senior who is taking AP English. My son is 18 years old. He had to sign up for the draft.”
Kathleen Tuck, Nampa School District community relations director and spokesperson, said, “None of these were required reading.”
“AP creates a list of books that are recommended reading, and then the district pulls from that list to create our own list,” she said. “Basically, students had a choice of several books that they could read, and then parents, of course, have the option of not having them read specific books.”
“Next year they will not be on that recommended list,” she said.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about a puritanical theocracy that subjugates women; the winner of the 1986 Booker Prize, among other honors, it was made into a popular television series in 2017.
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The Safran Foer book, a novel published in 2005, is about a 9-year-old boy who lost his father in the 9/11 attacks. Amazon.com’s description says, “With humor, tenderness, and awe, Jonathan Safran Foer confronts the traumas of our country’s difficult history.” Barnes and Noble rates it as appropriate for ages 14-18 and calls it, “A funny, uplifting novel about a boy’s journey through New York in the aftermath of September 11th from one of today’s most celebrated writers.”
“The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970, is Morrison’s first novel; set in the 1940s, it focuses on controversial themes including racism, incest and sexual assault, making it a frequent target for book bans. Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Lance McGrath, founder of the Nampa Banned Books Fan Club and an academic librarian at the College of Idaho, said, “I hope they will reconsider.”
“AP English? I think that should be challenging material,” he said. “We want those brightest minds to be engaging with those voices that tell about hard things and learning about those, and thinking about how they can build their reserves of empathy and understanding, so that they can be successful leaders in the 21st Century. You don’t learn things by sticking your head in the sand. Stick your head in a book.”
DeLaney said, “There were many of these books that were just kind of head-scratchers.” He noted that one of the 22 banned books, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” is a 1999 coming-of-age novel that was made into a popular movie starring Emma Watson in 2012. Two others are single selections from trilogies by young adult fiction author Cassandra Clare. The Kite Runner, Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, was a No. 1 best seller.
John Green’s novel “Looking for Alaska,” a coming-of-age novel published in 2005, won the American Library Association’s 2006 Printz Award, which recognizes the best book of the year written for teens, based on literary merit. “We can’t keep it in stock – it flies off the shelves,” DeLaney said.
“Many of these books have been in school libraries and curriculum for decades,” he said.
Now, DeLaney said, “A small group is saying no teenagers in Nampa should have access to these award-winning books. That’s where we’re at. How can we fight back against this form of censorship and ignorance? The best way we can do it is get books in people’s hands.”
After the Nampa School Board voted 3-2 on May 10 to ban all 22 of the books permanently, cutting off a review of the books that had been in process by committees of parents and teachers and ordering them all removed, Delaney said, “We sat down with our staff and said, ‘What are we going to do?’”
The answer: A donation drive to purchase copies of the books and give them away to Nampa students for free. In a single week, donations covered the purchase of more than 1,250 books, and the bookshop had to cut off the drive – that’s three pallets of books, the maximum amount they could order, store and give out.
Rediscovered Bookshop, which has locations in Boise and Caldwell, will distribute the books June 8 at Flying M Coffee Garage, 1314 2nd Street South in Nampa, from 6-8 p.m. Anyone with a Nampa student ID will have their pick of any three of the books, for free. Local teachers, staff and parents also can get a free book.
“We figure in two hours, we should be able to give away 1,500 books,” DeLaney said.
Separately, on June 13 at 6 p.m., the Nampa Banned Books Fan Club is planning another event, a “Banned Books Read-In” on the lawn outside the Nampa School District office, 619 S. Canyon St. Participants will bring blankets, picnics and their “favorite banned book,” and hold a “peaceful read-in protest.” It’s already drawn interest from more than 110 participants on Facebook.
“We’ll be encouraging people to read those banned books or others that they would choose,” McGrath said. “There’s something in a banned book for everyone.”
McGrath said he started the Banned Books Fan Club to encourage others to “embrace their freedom to read … because that’s how we keep our freedoms, is by exercising them.”
The club’s Facebook page says, “We are Nampans who reject the suppression of free speech, restricted access to information, and the smothering of independent thought in our diverse community. Freedom of thought is American. We treasure it. We exercise it. We read banned books.”
“My take on the school board decision is I do believe it was made in haste, with good intentions,” McGrath said. “But it was not fully informed, and I do believe that there’s a good chance it violated their own policy.” The district’s policy for challenged materials includes a committee review process, he noted. “They chose to take action before the final report was submitted. I hope that they will reconsider.”
DeLaney, who ran a high-energy physics lab at Micron Technology before he and wife Laura, a former elementary school music teacher, opened their first bookstore in 2006, said the bookshop supports “more people reading more books.”
“As an educated and free society, we need to … trust our teenagers and our teachers and our librarians to make good decisions about what they’re reading,” he said.
Clearly, he said, no one supports giving pornography to children; and just as clearly, that’s not what the books on the list are.
“Teenagers are smart, teenagers are engaged readers,” DeLaney said. “They’re trying to figure out their world and their place in it.”
Many of the books the district banned, like Spokane author Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian,” explore “the same questions we all had when we were teenagers,” he said, “Who am I? What is my place in the world? Do I have to pretend to be somebody I’m not in order to be accepted by society?”
DeLaney said he worries that the Nampa board’s decision to remove the books is “taking away that next generation of students’ ability to find them in the school libraries and to have them impact their lives and make them more empathetic people.”
But he also said he’d expect any smart, reading-oriented 17-year-old to treat the list of 22 banned books as a summer reading list – and read everything that someone tells them they shouldn’t. “No one tries to ban books that no one is reading,” he said. “If a book is not worth reading, it never gets challenged, it never gets banned.”
Before any of this came up, Rediscovered Bookshop already was sponsoring the “Read Freely Project,” which is in its second year in partnership with The Cabin, a literary arts nonprofit in Boise. Last year, the Read Freely Project gave away 750 books from authors of varying perspectives and backgrounds, with each recipient receiving 10 copies of the same book — on the condition that they then physically give each one to someone with a recommendation that they read it.
The Read Freely books address challenging topics, from immigration to slavery to the LGBT community. The idea is to spark conversations and empathy, DeLaney said. “We think it’s a worthy goal, and our customers agree with us.” This summer, the project is planning to give away 1,000 books.
Tuck, with the Nampa School District, said the district has been receiving calls from residents who are “not very happy,” including many wanting to buy the books that are being removed from school libraries. She estimated that roughly 600 have been removed, boxed up, and placed in a district warehouse so far, with dozens more still being collected and counted.
During the May 10 school board meeting, district Superintendent Gregg Russell said the books could be disposed of the way the district disposes of old textbooks: Throwing them in the garbage.
But Tuck said the district has decided against destroying the books. “What they’ve decided is they just want them left in the warehouse until any further decisions are made,” she said. “That could be soon, that could be years from now.”
DeLaney said that reminds him of the final scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the 1981 movie in which the intrepid adventurer Indiana Jones finds the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, rescues it from the Nazis, and brings it back home to turn over to the United States government, which says it will be moved to an “undisclosed location” for study. But instead, the prized and powerful artifact is transferred, crated up, into a large warehouse and stored there, indefinitely, among countless other crates.