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MSU staff reads banned books as part of 'Read Out' event

open bookSTARKVILLE — In protest of censorship, Mississippi State University Libraries leaders organized a “Read-Out” for faculty and staff to share sections of historically suppressed books.

As part of MSU’s recognition of Banned Books Week, Sept. 21-27, eight university representatives selected and read from often-banned books, six of which are generally considered children’s books. The Read-Out was held in Mitchell Memorial Library’s Grisham Room.

The youth-targeted books — L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Elsa Bornemann’s “Un Elefante Ocupa Mucho Espacio,” Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” — were recognized as challenging to adults’ worldviews, MSU scholars agreed.

“A lot of censorship comes to children’s books; we project our adult feelings and fears onto children’s literature,” said Deborah Lee, the professor of library instruction and co-director of MSU’s quality enhancement program who read from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” “Oftentimes, the key to a book’s being censored is when a person says, ‘I don’t want my child to read this book.'”

Baum’s book has been censored because of its portrayal of witches and animals with human characteristics, such as flying monkeys, but the book is an enjoyable fantasy, Lee explained.

Two faculty members read their selections from beginning to end. Ben Harvey, associate professor of art, read “In the Night Kitchen,” while Sol Pelaez, assistant professor of classical and modern languages and literatures, read the Spanish “Un Elefante Ocupa Mucho Espacio.”

Harvey’s selection was banned primarily for its nude portrayal of the child protagonist, he explained. The book Bornemann chose was banned in Argentina, she said, because the plot features an elephant that leads a successful rebellion against the circus.

Megan Holmes, assistant professor of kinesiology, explained how the meaning of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has changed for her each time she has reread the novel since she first encountered it as an adolescent in rural Nebraska. Associate professor of English Michael Kardos said he experiences the same shifting of understanding every time he returns to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Both books have been banned because of their gritty portrayal of youth experiences, though each novel presents a realistic world, Holmes and Kardos agreed.

“When it comes to books for kids, censorship becomes a lot more complicated. What are the texts children are ready for? What are they not ready for? Is it age-appropriate?” asked Devon Brenner, the professor and head of the Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education who read from “The Hunger Games.” “At the same time, we need to make sure that a range of ideas is available to our children.”

In addition to the children’s book selections, two presenters read from books generally considered to be written for adult audiences. John Brocato, technical communication coordinator for the Bagley College of Engineering, presented a section of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” while Sid Salter, director of the Office of Public Affairs and chief communication officer, read from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“Catch-22” features a realistic, violent portrayal of war that impacted the way Brocato understands soldiers’ experiences, he said, and the novel’s themes continue to be relevant today. Likewise, the class warfare described in “The Grapes of Wrath” continues to make the novel a relevant read in modern America, Salter said.

“I hope this entire event has encouraged you to go read and to keep reading,” said Rachel Cannady, assistant professor of library instruction and moderator of the Read-Out. “That’s the pure job of literature.”

Banned Books Week, begun in 1982 and held the final full week of September, annually celebrates the freedom to read, both for children and adults. Learn more about the national movement at bannedbooksweek.org.

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