Ann Arbor banned book club returns, featuring books challenged in Michigan

Ann Arbor bookstore Booksweet, 1729 Plymouth Rd., will launch the second "season" of its bimonthly Banned Book Club on April 14. The season will focus on books banned and challenged in schools and libraries in Michigan. The topic of the first meeting is “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by lesbian author Alison Bechdel, which was recently challenged at Milan High School.

Alongside Booksweet owners Truly Render and Shaun Manning, the meeting will feature Sabrina Baeta, program consultant for the free speech advocacy nonprofit PEN America's Freedom to Read program. Baeta will discuss PEN’s recent reporting on book bans and challenges throughout the country prior to discussion of Bechdel’s graphic novel.

“Year one was really about getting people to read these books,” Render says, noting that she often finds that those advocating for book bans have not read the books in question. “It’s very easy in a city like Ann Arbor to say this is a problem that happens somewhere else, but it’s happening here in our state and in our county.”

While some banned and challenged books have been removed altogether from schools and public libraries, some are “restricted,” either by age or by physically placing them behind check-out counters in libraries, forcing patrons to ask for specific books when they may not be comfortable doing so. Some schools require permission slips to check out certain books, as in the case of “Fun Home” in Milan.

Render and Baeta agree that these kinds of restrictions still limit accessibility in the same way as removing the books from the shelves entirely. 

“We’re going to take a very hard stance on any kind of restriction,” says Baeta. “There’s such a rise in book bans that it seems like suddenly these books have appeared, but they’ve been here. This is a breakdown of community, and a natural result of disconnect between people.” 

In its first year, the club discussed books including “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, which follows a young Black girl after she witnesses the death of a friend at the hands of police. The American Library Association ranked it one of the top 10 banned books of 2021. The club has also discussed Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” which details the author’s father’s firsthand experience of the Holocaust. "Maus" garnered national attention after being deemed inappropriate for school-age readers.

“These concepts are dark and heavy, and that’s okay,” Render says. 

Many banned and challenged books feature themes of violence, racism, sexuality, and abuse, which has stirred up national controversy on what students should and shouldn’t be exposed to. Baeta, who came to Michigan from Florida and is originally from Brazil, views some of these bans as a “targeted attack” on marginalized groups such as people of color and queer people.

“There is pushback against students feeling uncomfortable, when we know pedagogically they need that knowledge,” Baeta says.

In last year’s iteration of the club, Manning would pose the same question at the end of each meeting: “Is there a good-faith argument on why this book should not be in schools?” Depending on the book, Manning says he feels the question can answer itself.

“These books do not just benefit the communities they come from. They benefit everybody,” Manning says. “I want to do whatever we can to make sure these stories are accessible.”

The Banned Book Club is free to attend and targeted mainly at teens and adults. Render also wants to encourage Michigan librarians to participate in the club, as they and teachers are often the individuals “on the front lines” of enforcing or challenging bans.

No purchases are necessary to participate, but Booksweet will be selling limited-edition “I Love Banned Books” T-shirts, as well as the banned and challenged books themselves. 10% of proceeds from sales of these T-shirts and books will go to PEN America. The club will run from 7-8 p.m., and interested participants can RSVP through Eventbrite.

“As a child, I was able to read freely,” Render says. “I don’t want anything less for anyone else.”

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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