Since 1982, more than 11,300 books have been challenged or banned in the United States. It is this startling fact that prompted the national book community to start Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate the great works – both classic and new – that are often challenged in schools and libraries because of their language or content. This year, Banned Books Week is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and it falls from September 30-October 6.
My students are really excited about the coming week. Each of them has selected a banned or challenged book from the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books and they are reading them this week to celebrate free speech and raise awareness about censorship. I would love to say that I came up with this brilliant assignment myself, but the truth of the matter is that my students worked together without my help to select books and start reading them. They told me about it almost as an afterthought.
Oh those naughty tomes!
I’ve long known that, if you tell a kid a book has been banned, they will pick it up instantly and read it. It’s English Teaching 101 – if you want a kid to read a book, tell them why they shouldn’t. It just so happens that most of the books we read in class are banned, so my anticipation builders are usually presentations about all of the naughty things they will encounter in the book we’re going to read. Usually, my students finish those books well before their deadline.
Justin Stanley, president of Uprise Books, had the same idea. Uprise Books is an organization “dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty through literacy, providing new banned and challenged books to underprivileged teens free of charge.” The idea is that, if you give underprivileged kids banned books, they will read them, thus empowering them to value education and end the cycle of poverty. So far, it seems they are doing pretty well.
This is probably the busiest week for Justin and his team at Uprise Books, but he was able to answer some questions about Uprise Books and the importance of both literature and free speech. What follows is our interview.
Ashley: Can you tell me a little bit more about your mission at Uprise Books? How do you get these books in the hands of underprivileged youth? Why did you choose banned books in particular?
Justin: Don’t you just love mission statements? They make things sound so nice and neat. Take ours, for instance. “The Uprise Books Project is dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty through literacy, providing new banned and challenged books to underprivileged teens free of charge.” Easy, right? Just ending poverty, illiteracy, and censorship. No big deal.
Most people intuitively get the connection between those first two things, and there’s evidence to back it up. For example, a recent study commissioned by Reading Is Fundamental (RIF noted that “children from less affluent families do not perform as well on achievement tests compared with children of more affluent families.” You can see how that would create the “cycle of poverty” we refer to in our mission statement: kids in poorer families are less likely to pick up the reading skills correlated with future success. They end up in low-income jobs and have kids who’re in the same situation they grew up in.
That same RIF study goes on to state that “one possible remedy to the socioeconomic gaps in academic achievement is to make sure that children of low-income families have access to high-quality, age-appropriate books.” Kids in poorer families tend to have fewer books in the home, live farther from public libraries, and attend underfunded schools with fewer books.
So solving the access problem is the first step, and we’ll be doing that primarily through the website we’re in the process of developing (the current site has some information about us and our goals, but doesn’t yet have the capability to accept and fulfill requests). We ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last year that raised $10,000 for the design and development of the new site, but it’s been slow going. We’d hoped that the site would be available by now, but it looks like it will probably be around the end of this calendar year before it goes live.
Getting the books to teens, though, isn’t quite enough. You still need to get them to read the things. Many teens (especially those in poorer neighborhoods) look down on reading. These students are more likely to have a lot of negative peer pressure working against them. Learning, knowledge, reading… all of that tends to be frowned upon by the kids we’re trying to reach (and, sadly, by many of the adults in their lives). At best, it’s “nerdy,” at worst, it’s “selling out.” Pushing banned/challenged books provides those kids with a shield to use against that pressure. Instead of reading a great work of literature, they’re breaking the rules and discovering what THEY (parents, adults, the establishment, etc.) don’t want them to know. We’re playing off a teen’s inherent sense of rebellion… the same teen who’d never think to read “The Great Gatsby” because it was named the best book of the 20th century might be turned on to the book that was challenged for its “language and sexual references.”
Of course, the banned/challenged theme has another perk: it gets the potential donors interested. During our Kickstarter campaign, we tried promoting the project using several different messages through various social media channels… “end the cycle of poverty,” “promote reading,” etc. While people of course agreed with those ideas, the “fight censorship” message was much more likely to lead to action.
Ashley: What inspired you to start Uprise Books?
Justin: I’m not sure it can be attributed to a single event or inspiration, really. There was no “Eureka!” moment or anything like that, rather several seemingly unrelated things that eventually Voltron-ed together.
For example, we were pretty poor growing up… a single-parent family on welfare. I know how the kids we’re trying to reach feel, what they’re going through. I also still vividly remember how it felt when RIF visited my elementary school in second grade, how great it was to have these strangers GIVING us all books for no apparent reason (especially when you have so few possessions of your own)… and I remember how nice it was to be able to escape from the reality of the family’s situation with a book, even if just for a few minutes.
I also remember the “you’ve got to be kidding me…” feeling I had as an adult when I first realized that books were still being banned and challenged in this country today. When you start going through the lists and see the wide range of “offensive” titles — anything from classic literature to kid favorites to books on anatomy — so often, the books being banned are the ones those kids need so desperately.
The project itself, though, came out of the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship elective I took as part of the Portland State University MBA program last summer. The course’s main deliverable was a feasibility analysis of a new social enterprise of your choice, and this project was mine. I realized while performing the analysis that the start-up costs for my business model were so low that there really wasn’t much to lose by trying. So, after the class was over, I decided to see if I could make it happen.
Ashley: What is your all-time favorite banned book and why? Will you be re-reading it for Banned Books Week? If not, what will you be reading for Banned Books week?
Justin: I think I give a different answer to this one every time I’m asked, but I’m going to go with “Lolita” right now. I’m usually more interested in story than style when I pick up a book, but Nabokov somehow manages to nail both in a way that few can. It’s just such a beautifully written story about such an ugly and despicable subject. Love it.
But… no. I won’t be re-reading it next week. There are just so many great books out there, banned or not, that I have a hard time going back to the same ones. I’m running out of time to pick one, I know, but right now the leading candidate is Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
Ashley: What is important about banned books in our society today? In your opinion, why should we – and especially teenagers – read them?
Justin: Oh, so many things… first, it’s a matter of educating people that these things are still happening today. Most people are shocked when they find out that books are still being banned or challenged in 21st century America, but the data collected by the ALA and the ACLU shows that it’s not all that uncommon. And we could argue about the quality of the literature in question, but whether it’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the idea of withholding books from the public is unforgiveable (not to mention unconstitutional).
Ashley: What is the most dangerous part about censorship, in your opinion?
Justin: I think that the bans and challenges usually come from a good place, from a desire to protect children from what the adults see as the ugliness in the world. Unfortunately, covering your child’s eyes doesn’t really make the ugliness go away; it only makes them less equipped to deal with it on their own.
Also, books are often banned and challenged for the very reasons that people need to access them. Books on human sexuality are kept from kids who aren’t getting that education through other channels, for example, or books that empower disenfranchised minorities are withheld from the kids who need them (see the recent ridiculousness in Arizona, for instance). It’s like the intellectual equivalent of taking someone’s canteen when they’re in the middle of a desert.
Ashley: What can we do to help your project succeed? How can we get involved?
Justin: As a non-profit, donations are obviously critical to our success. We’re a very lean organization and are adept at stretching each dollar, but we still need to be able to buy books, ship them, pay developers, etc. Volunteer opportunities are limited at this point, but as things really start rolling we can certainly envision ways that people can help more with their time and non-monetary donations. For instance, while we always want to provide the teens with new books, we’ll likely begin to sell used books as a fundraising tool. And people should certainly follow us on Twitter (@UpriseBooks), Like us on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/UpriseBooks), and subscribe for email updates (link on the current http://www.UpriseBooks.org site, just under the Donate Now! Section).
Photo Credit: wanderingone