Tonia Dousay completed her reading, closed the book and made an impassioned plea.
Dousay, the dean of the School of Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage, was kicking off a Banned Books Week event Monday at the school’s Literacy Lounge by reading from “Rosa.” The children’s book on civil rights activist Rosa Parks, which has been touted as recommended reading for kids by longtime “Reading Rainbow” host Levar Burton, was also rejected by a Pennsylvania school board in 2021.
“It’s frustrating to see history banned and it’s frustrating to see what is an accurate retelling banned,” Dousay said. “I wish I’d had a book like this as a child to help me understand what I couldn’t.”
Banned Books Week was launched nationally in 1982 not only to thwart attempts at suppression, but also to prompt readers to dive into works that had been challenged or banned.
As local attempts to challenge or ban books have gained traction in both Anchorage and the Mat-Su area, so have efforts to rally against censorship. UAA’s weeklong banned books reading event is in its first year and features students, staff and faculty from the school community and beyond. Out North Radio has teamed with the ACLU and the Alaska Bookmobile to expand on their unAUTHORized series to include outreach events at bookstores in Wasilla and Anchorage.
Dousay brought the idea of a banned book reading from the University of Idaho, where she worked before arriving at UAA.
“Seeing these stories is just a good reminder that censorship has no place and that we need events like this to help us come together and talk about our experiences and why books matter,” Dousay said.
Jennifer Booz followed Dousay, reading from “The Cider House Rules,” a novel that addresses topics such as abortion and drug use.
Booz, who is UAA’s chief diversity officer, said the books that are often targeted nationwide explore topics like equity, diversity and identity.
“I think it’s really important that people get exposure to groups from different identities and backgrounds so that we have compassion, we understand where people are coming from, and we’re able to have discussions and learn more,” she said.
The UAA “We’re with the Banned” censorship spotlight features daily readings through Friday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. in the UAA Literacy Lounge, in Room 102 in the Professional Studies Building.
Out North started the unAUTHORized program in 2020 when the Mat-Su school board removed five books from high school English courses. The board later rescinded that vote.
The program started with recordings of readings of banned books that were broadcast on Out North and panel discussions on censorship.
Out North Executive Director Erin Willahan said it’s been a continuing campaign, but challenges and bans have undeniably ramped up.
The American Library Association reported a record-high demand for censoring books in 2022. Like Booz, Willahan said the books that are being challenged often tell stories of groups who have been historically marginalized or persecuted.
“They’re often stories that either complicate or challenge or offer an alternative to dominant narratives about everything from human sexuality to race to the realities of colonization,” she said. “Restricting that plurality of narratives does help maintain the status quo and it kind of goes to show how powerful books are.”
Willahan said the program has evolved into a celebration of reading, freedom of expression and freedom of thought. In collaborating with the Alaska Bookmobile, the unAUTHORized program was able to take their message to the people. The Bookmobile, which also launched in 2020, was founded by Jimmy Riordan.
With a generator, FM transmitters, projection and sound equipment along with a trove of books, the Bookmobile was a perfect tool to provide outreach for the program.
“We kind of think of it as this set of resources on wheels that can help with other organizations or events,” Riordan said. “So anytime there’s something that people are passionate about that they’d like to do and the bookmobile can just kind of like, pop in and help make that either more visible or can help power that, you know, that’s what we want to do.”
The Bookmobile will be at Black Birch Books in Wasilla on Wednesday from 3-7 p.m. It will also be at The Writer’s Block in Anchorage from noon-4 p.m. Saturday. It will be not only loaning books, including from its banned and challenged collection, but also recording readings to be played on Out North all month.
Alaska author Don Rearden has had many friends whose books have been challenged or banned, and he even dealt with pushback himself stemming from his novel “The Raven’s Gift.” Rearden admits there is challenging subject matter in the book, but believes in addressing and discussing challenging material.
“I never thought we’d be in this place,” he said. “I just couldn’t envision that our country would ever fear ideas to a level that we’d ban books. ... It’s just mind boggling to me and really, really scary as a writer, but also as a parent and a citizen.”
Rearden was invited to Nome to do some readings of “The Raven’s Gift,” which was to include a stop at the local high school. He found out from a teacher that someone had objected to the book and it’d been pulled from the curriculum.
Rearden was heartened to hear that students had banded together and made a case for the importance of studying the book, including for future students. They were able to bring the book back and establish an opt-out for parents who objected to material in the book.
“They’re able to continue to study it, and then that allowed me to have the chance to go speak to the class and talk to them,” Rearden said.
Willahan said it’s important to consider the processes for challenging books. For example, she noted how earlier this year, the Anchorage Library Board sidestepped its existing policy for book challenges by referring “Let’s Talk About It” to the Anchorage municipal attorney for review. She also said that a list of 56 books that are being challenged in the Mat-Su Borough School District come from a generic list being passed between advocacy groups.
“It’s not a list that was necessarily compiled by parents but was sort of like, passed off as part of these larger (national) groups that are attempting to censor,” Willahan said.
Booz said as much as anything, the live events and books in general are about sparking conversation and generating a dialogue, instead of enacting a ban.
“It’s still fine to decide that you don’t like a book, and that maybe it’s not appropriate for certain age groups at certain times,” she said. “So it’s important to have events like this where you can come and listen and learn and discuss.”