As an office full of book nerds, we at Vanderbilt UP are excited to recognize Banned Books Week 2019 this week. Drawing attention to the harms of censorship since 1982, Banned Books Week “brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.” Just in time for Banned Books Week, we were alarmed recently when a school in our home city of Nashville made international news for removing the Harry Potter series from its library. The controversy arose when Reverend Dan Reehil, a pastor at St. Edward Catholic School in Nashville, announced that the Harry Potter series had been removed from circulation in the school library. In an email to the school’s teachers, Reehil listed several reasons for the removal:
“These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells, which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text. I have consulted with several exorcists, both in the United States and in Rome, and they have recommended removing the books from circulation.”
In response, Nashville author Margaret Renkl wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times this week in which she reflects on the St. Edward news story, book bans, and the magic of reading:
Harry Potter and his friends don’t exist in real life, but they wrestle with real-life challenges: bullies, rejection, loneliness, fear, grief — and, yes, with clueless adults whose behavior is patently ludicrous. [ . . . ]
The best children’s literature isn’t an attempt to teach children anything, good or bad. Children don’t read Harry Potter to learn incantations. They read Harry Potter because the stories are absorbing — intricate and exciting and funny — and because reading them makes real life seem more magical. All the children I know went to sleep the night before their 11th birthday half convinced an owl would arrive after midnight, swoop in their bedroom window, and drop an invitation to Hogwarts on their bed.
The gift of brilliant fiction, for children and adults, is the way it blurs the line between what has happened and what can happen. When a book comes to life in a reader’s imagination, the reader is changed, and so the fictional world enters the world of reality in a profound alchemical reaction that changes the nature of reality itself, though not in the way Father Rehill imagines.
Here are a few ways to celebrate Banned Books Week, both this week and year-round: