By Michael Riley
Apr 2, 2022
Every morning, in libraries and homes and schools throughout Latah County, people flip switches, metaphorical and literal, to turn on the lights, open doors and put books in the hands of citizens, letting the light of wisdom shine out. Because that’s what books do: they draw us outside of ourselves and open us to possibilities that we can’t see in the dark.
The Idaho House recently entertained the old and tired habit of shutting off the power to libraries and their readers through their misguided, but aptly named, House Bill 666, in which they would criminalize having books on library shelves that qualify as “harmful materials,” and hold library staff responsible for providing such materials. This movement to ban books is gaining ground in our country, as administrators, school boards and local representatives take it upon themselves to be the gatekeepers of acceptable reading and knowledge acquisition.
What library employees and readers and teachers all know, though, is that you can’t limit learning without reducing it. Reading a good book can open worlds we hadn’t considered, allow us to see our own place in the world we often feel separated from, and work powerful change upon us. A few years ago, in partnership with the Education Department at Washington State University, I worked with students, teachers and parents to read various young adult novels and discuss their merits. I got paid in books and made them available to my students.
One kid, reading the first few pages of “Gabi, A Girl in Pieces,” told me in amazement, that this was the first time she had read a book where characters looked and talked like her. Of course an Idaho legislator might find that language objectionable, but for me, allowing a young Latina middle schooler to see herself on the written page, that more than made up for some coarse words. Books that come from a variety of perspectives and points of view recognize us, allow us to recognize ourselves and our place in this society, and show us a reality not often shared in our school textbooks. Reading, and the learning it imparts, teaches us that we ourselves are not “harmful material,” and that we should resist all efforts to label us or others in those demeaning terms.
I have been having fun in recent months with the Latah County Library’s “Something for YA” teen subscription boxes, in which readers of all ages fill out a checklist of their favorite books and authors and genres, and then a book is provided within those parameters, along with fun themed snacks and trinkets. Since I’d ticked the list with science fiction and LGBTQ reading interests, I got a book full of teen angst, with alien abductions and both closeted and openly gay characters. It was a terrible book. But I’m not about to support those who would pull it from the shelves and bully the librarians that chose it for me. Art and love and beauty are in the eyes of the beholder, and I’m pretty sure that this book was not for my eyes only.
Another book I recently started reading, “Grace Year,” is a fascinating blend of Hunger Games (banned), Handmaid’s Tale (banned), and “Lord of the Flies (banned). In it, young women in their teens are sent away to have their wicked young sinfulness expunged from them with violence, far from the serene town in which they live sheltered and stultifying lives. The codified gender roles, the violence against women, the push to squash the sassiness and individuality of the main character, an older Junie B. Jones (banned), all of these are daily fare for so many women in our society. And holding these misguided roles up for examination in a clearly fictional world allows us to view our own moral stance on these kinds of behaviors much more clearly. Because all around us, in a seriously real and challenging world, it’s a lot to take in.
So for readers and their parents, students and their teachers, legislators and their constituents, libraries and their patrons, I say, be thou not afraid. Let your light of learning shine out brightly, and don’t let anyone put a bushel-basket over you to dim it.
Riley is a Potlatch resident and member of the Latah County Library District board of trustee