116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Recently, there have been headlines about some Iowans getting their knickers in a knot and wanting to ban certain books in our school libraries. Efforts to impose a narrow worldview on others is the latest salvo in the culture war. Trying to ban books is nothing new, though. It is actually quite predictable. Many of us remember the photographs in history textbooks of Nazis and their pyres of burning books. Unfortunately, efforts to prevent young people from reading certain books have also been a frequent occurrence in modern American history. In fact, it happened to me.
It was in the early 1970s when I visited my tiny public library to check out a certain book. As a regular patron, I knew my way around the stacks. I searched for the novel under the author’s last name but couldn’t locate it. At the librarian’s desk, I inquired if the library had a copy of “Summer of My German Soldier,” an award -winning young adult novel by Bette Greene. My expectation was for the librarian to tell me it was already checked out or to look in the card catalog. Instead, she hesitated, looked me directly in the eye, and stated in no uncertain terms that the library didn’t have that book.
Disappointed, but realizing that our small public library didn’t have a huge collection, I went back to the tall gray shelves. After browsing for quite a long time, I remember sitting down on the floor to get a better look at the books on the lowest shelf. There it was – “Summer of my German Soldier.” I was confused and wondered why she told me the library didn’t have the book. Why was it hidden away down there and not shelved correctly? I felt uncomfortable when I presented the book to the librarian, but she didn’t say a word when she stamped on the due date.
The book was the story of a young Jewish girl living in Arkansas during World War II. She befriends a German prisoner of war working as a day laborer on a local farm when he was allowed to purchase a sun hat from her father’s store. It was somewhat shocking for me to learn from the book that the German prisoners in America had a different experience than the Americans in “Hogan’s Heroes.” This coming of age novel introduced me to the realities of racial and religious discrimination in the South and helped me understand that under an enemy’s uniform lies a human being with a family and dreams just like me. The book did not have a happy ending, but it was a book I never forgot.
At home that night, the library mystery was revealed. I learned that the public librarian was a former German citizen who had immigrated to America shortly after World War II. She was a good woman, a hard worker, raised two fine sons, ran the library with precision, and was fiercely proud of her home country. What were her personal reasons for trying to keep me from reading that book? Was she opposed to any reminder of Germany’s defeat in the war? Was she uncomfortable with the rawness of the prejudice revealed in the story? Was she trying to protect me from the realities of life in America during that particular time period?
The thing was that I didn’t need her protection. During that time, the Vietnam War raged nightly on the news, Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and students on our college campuses were rioting. Teenagers like me were already exposed to the dark side of life in America. If anything, that book helped me to make some sense of the chaos in the country. Most of all, the novel made me think, and it helped me understand a world outside the safe confines of my all white community.
I will never know precisely why the librarian didn’t want me to have access to that book, but even as a teenager, I knew she was wrong to impose her personal views on my right to read that book. It wasn’t right then and isn’t right now. Gov. Kim Reynolds latest statement about promoting more “transparency” in school curriculum sounds like a dog whistle and suggests she will support the banning of books.
While writing this piece, I learned that “Summer of My German Soldier” was once one of the most commonly challenged books in American libraries. Fortunately, libraries have policies in place to deal with these all too frequent attempts to ban books. You see, trying to get libraries to remove books because they introduce young people to different or unpopular ideas or, heaven forbid, offend the sensibilities of a few people, does all of us a disservice.
Iowans need to understand that libraries have lean budgets so our media specialists take great care in selecting books. They learn in library science courses the criteria for selecting the best literature and are encouraged to use reputable sources such as the School Library Journal to guide their selections. Media specialists are also tasked with an obligation to fill their collection with a wide range of books to meet the needs of their increasingly diverse student readers.
“We read so that we know we are not alone” is a familiar quote that speaks to my point. Often young people do feel that they are all alone in their struggles. Books let them know that others have experienced similar emotions. They provide us with a window into how others dealt with their problems, successfully or unsuccessfully. Books help people explore other cultures, different time periods, and characters with varied life experiences and beliefs.
We need to guard against the idea that one person’s view is the only correct view. I would encourage people who want to ban a book to read the whole text and not just pass judgment on a short passage taken out of context. I would like to remind them that even though a certain book might not be what you want your child to read, you don’t have the right to make that decision for other parents or students.
The citizens of Iowa need to push back against the banning of books in our libraries. We don’t want our country to evolve into a fascist society like Nazi Germany where book burnings were encouraged and different ideas and people perished.
Betsy Pilkington is a retired teacher and longtime public library trustee. She lives in North English and is active in the Iowa Democratic Party. firstname.lastname@example.org