Libraries let anyone check out — and return — books for free, but as part of a first-year course, a group of students gave away dozens of books for keeps at Concordia College.
“I've been interested in banned books for as long as I can remember, and now the number of book challenges and bans is skyrocketing so it felt timely and necessary to learn more about all of it with students,” said Dr. Amy Watkin, a Concordia English professor teaching a first-year seminar called Book Banning: What’s at Stake? this semester.
The giveaway was one of four group projects students completed during Banned Books Week, including a library display, a display in Concordia’s English department, and taking over the Fargo Public Library’s social media feeds.
“Students did a great job organizing themselves and planning and executing their projects,” Watkin said.
As part of the class, students read multiple books that have been banned for various reasons: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “The Hate U Give,” “Melissa,” “The 1619 Project,” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”
The science fiction classic, whose title refers to “the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns,” was also one of the 100 books students gave away at the library, along with “Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret,” “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and others.
The books came from international publishing house Simon & Schuster, the only one of three companies Watkin wrote to that responded positively to her inquiry and chose a selection of their books for the project.
“Students got very positive responses to the book giveaway and were able to talk to people about the books and the issue,” Watkin said.
While Watkin has been interested in banned books for as long as she can remember, the issue has been thrust into the forefront of public discourse in recent years, as book challenges and ban attempts have skyrocketed. The American Library Association states that it documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022 — the highest number in more than 20 years.
“Students are currently affected by book challenges and bans in terms of what's available to them in schools and libraries, in terms of state legislation (not in Minnesota but elsewhere), in terms of being current or future taxpayers, in terms of their First Amendment rights, in terms of their future families or loved ones, and more,” Watkin said. “Freedom to read and access to information affects everything.”
Students got very positive responses to the book giveaway and were able to talk to people about the books and the issue.
Her goal is to give students a better understanding of how book bans and challenges work, as they learn about the many differing reasons people have for banning books. Recently, many of the attempts to ban books have centered around LGBTQ+-related content or work by or about people of color. As such, Watkin said, she also hoped students understand the importance of representation in books, not just to gain information, perspective, and empathy, but also to recognize, love, and appreciate people who may belong to groups that aren’t necessarily their own.
“I also hope that students take away an appreciation for difficult conversations, and the need to have them,” Watkin said. “We've been talking a lot lately about how there may be opportunities through their lives to talk with people who disagree with them around book banning or other issues. And those conversations as well as mutual respect can be crucial to any sort of progress or peace.”