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Letter to the Editor 3/27/23: Maine bans books too

Although Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania are the states that have banned the most books in the recent escalation of book challenges, Maine is not immune to this controversy. On the same day last year Ashley Hope Perez, banned book author, made a statement regarding the debate by Maine’s District 6 School Board about removing Maia Kobabe’s book “Gender Queer” from the Bonny Eagle schools. 

“What I want to be really clear about is the books are a pretext. (Book banning) is a proxy war on students who share the marginalized identities of the authors and characters of the books under attack,” Perez stated.  

A letter from a queer student that was read by a teacher contained the following sentence: “By removing this book you are sending a message that we are not welcome here.”

According to Laurie Carpenter, Orono Public Library director, “Gender Queer”, a graphic novel coming of age memoir, has been one of the more controversial books in Maine as well as the nation.  Another book that has raised concerns at both levels is “And Tango Makes Three”, a real life based picture book about two male penguins raising a chick.

Two disturbing trends in book challenging are emerging at both state and national level. In both the impetus has changed drastically. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, made the following statement for the Sept. 21, 2023 Maine Beacon: “More often than not, current challenges to books originate not from concerned parents acting individually but from political and advocacy groups working in concert to achieve the goal of limiting what books students can access and read in public schools.”

Also attempts to ban books are escalating to include not only individual school districts, but the state legislature.  According to the March 1, 2023 Portland Press Herald, Maine is one of “about a dozen states” considering bills that would seriously impede accessibility of controversial books.

 Representative James Libby, who introduced Maine’s bill, claims that it would protect children from exposure to inappropriate materials and provide schools with a clarification of what books are deemed acceptable. It would remove schools’ exemption from obscenity laws. Under Maine law books and other materials are considered obscene if they “depict sexual acts, excretion, or images of genders in a manner clearly offensive to the average person and lack any literary, artistic, or scientific value.”  If the bill passes, violation would be a Class C felony punishable by up to twenty-five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

 Opponents of the bill point out that the law is widely open to interpretation. Librarians, who already carefully scrutinize possible acquisitions for literary merit, age appropriateness, and scientific accuracy, then would also have the stressful task of second guessing what a jury might find obscene.  Carpenter said that book choices might be managed more strictly by school administrators eager to avoid legal liability.

Maine librarians, however, are more concerned about the effects on children and teens.  Carpenter believes that they should be able to make their own choices with parental guidance.  For those experiencing issues similar to those portrayed, those books can validate and assure.

“There’s someone in the book who looks like me. I’m not alone” Carpenter said.  “It can open up the world.  It can show what life is like for others.”

Two Maine institutions are making a special effort to protect banned books. In Waterville Maddie Smith has created the online Banned Bookstore from what had been her spare room to make challenged books more accessible.

“The whole idea for the bookstore started with wanting to sell an interesting curation of books.  I found an article about a book being banned recently in the South and was astounded that this sort of thing is still happening. Banned books are definitely an interest/passion of mine,” Smith told the Penobscot Bay Pilot in January. 

The April 4, 2022 Smithsonian carried the story of an extremely small Maine library with a very big mandate — to make sure copies of banned books are preserved. Matinicus Island (population 100) is 22 miles off the coast.  In the recent past books were hard to obtain there.  Residents shared with each other, borrowed from the Maine State Library, and raised the trash and recycling center.  In 2016 an 8-foot by 10-foot shed was turned into a library. In 2022 an adjoining shed was added. A children’s room was added in 2021. Now they’re asking for books that have been banned and consider it a privilege to do so.

Tuesday, March 28 at 1 p.m., in collaboration with Fogler Library, the Commuter Lounge (room 150 in the Union) will offer a discussion of book banning. Refreshments will be offered.  All are welcome.


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