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.
Photo Credit: wanderingone
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