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Arts & Culture

Banned books are back in the spotlight — but they've always been for this book club

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

An unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide - that's the reason a Tennessee school board gave last month for removing the graphic novel "Maus" from the eighth grade curriculum. Since then, sales of Art Spiegelman's book about the Holocaust have been skyrocketing. A similar thing happened when Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved" became a flashpoint in the Virginia governor's race last year. This got us thinking about the value of reading books that some people find objectionable, so we called up David Rafferty. He selects titles for the Banned Book Club. It was started by King's Books in Tacoma, Wash., 16 years ago. David, good morning.

DAVID RAFFERTY: Hi. Good morning, Juana.

SUMMERS: And also joining us - book club member Blanca Noriega. Hello, Blanca.

BLANCA NORIEGA: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: What was the appeal of joining this club for you both? David - and I'll start with you here.

RAFFERTY: I was looking for a book club, so I thought I'd give it a try. And just joining the club, I ended up learning about a whole bunch of really good books. A lot of the Banned Book Clubs will touch on some controversial topic, and that can elicit a very good conversation.

NORIEGA: The Banned Book Club is a favorite of mine because we do discuss a lot of issues and we get introduced to a lot of books that I probably wouldn't have read if it hadn't been for this club. It shows us what, as a society, we are willing to tolerate and why something might not be tolerable for some people. Trying to understand why other people might not find it tolerable is almost like pushing my comfort zones myself.

SUMMERS: David, is there a time where there's been a book and having that conversation, going on that adventure with other travelers, has changed your mind?

RAFFERTY: There was a book we read over a year ago called "The Blind Owl" by Sadegh Hedayat. It's very repetitive, very negative, and it depicts violence from the view of the perpetrator. A lot of us didn't like it that much, but we still had a great conversation about it. Some of them appreciated the fact that it had a good depiction of Iran back in the 1920s and '30s and kind of about male-female relationships.

SUMMERS: You know, a frequent thing that we hear when people talk about banning books is that they are not age appropriate. Have either of you ever read a book and thought to yourself, OK, yeah, I can understand why maybe a middle schooler should not read this until they get a little bit older?

RAFFERTY: Yeah. The example I can think of offhand is "Diary Of A Teenage Girl." It doesn't pull any punches when she talks about her experiences with sex and drugs. It's almost kind of refreshing. But at the same time, it's like, oh, wow, that's - this is a very graphic, graphic novel. And I would not recommend a middle schooler read it, but I don't want to be the one to say, OK, now let's do all we can to block access.

NORIEGA: I am of the same opinion as David that I'm not going to go around policing a whole generation of kids. I mean, I can talk as a parent. Maybe I can censor my kid's access to different things, but I'm not going to stop his whole class or his whole school. And kids have different levels of their own, like, thresholds, and they should be able to find out what they are, you know, comfortable with and what they're not comfortable with.

SUMMERS: Blanca, let me ask you this because you mentioned that you're a parent. What role do you think there is for educators to play in classrooms if these books are perhaps included in curriculums or something like that?

NORIEGA: It'd be nice maybe, if it was, like, super serious, to be told, like, it's going to be covered, and maybe I could read the book, too, and be prepared to have conversations with my own kid about it at home. But I'm not going to be policing the classroom. Like, that's not my job. My job is just to make sure that my kid is thinking about things deeply. And if my kid encounters something and I just have a knee-jerk reaction and - of outrage and start a campaign, like, does that really help my son understand what he encountered? Banned books make people uncomfortable for a reason. And I think, as a parent, my job is to teach him how to confront uncomfortable situations or teach him how to confront other people's experiences that are not his own, which is part of why we write, we read and we do all this conversation. It's to get to an understanding.

SUMMERS: That's Blanca Noriega and David Rafferty, members of the Banned Book Club in Tacoma, Wash. Thanks so much for talking with us.

NORIEGA: Thank you.

RAFFERTY: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.