By Jake Dye
Since September, local residents have been gathering monthly to discuss banned and challenged books at the Soldotna Public Library, covering topics like race, sexuality, gender and more as part of the Banned Book Club.
On Thursday, the group will gather at 6 p.m. to discuss “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe.
The Banned Book Club was started as a one-time event — the first being open-ended, not based on a specific title but about banned books as a whole. That first meeting’s success led to the group continuing to meet and cover a specific challenged text each month, including Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
Ryanna Thurman, assistant library director, said the book club was first planned to follow a monthly theme rather than a monthly book. Banned books was the first of those themes and she thought they’d move into genre themes like fantasy or larger categories like nonfiction titles.
A continued focus on banned books was unexpected, but not unwelcome.
“Once we had our discussion and we were talking about moving forward, everyone was really on board with reading the same book,” she said. “And wanted to continue reading just banned books.”
The topic of challenged books has come up locally multiple times in recent years, though not at the Soldotna Public Library specifically. Books have been challenged within the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
In late 2021, The City of Kenai delayed approval of a grant the Kenai Community Library received to purchase health and wellness materials. In a separate instance, KPBSD’s assistant superintendent rerouted a shipment of books destined for Seward’s high school library after a warehouse employee identified them as containing LGBTQ and racial justice themes. In both cases, the challenged material ultimately ended up at their respective libraries.
In November, a petition to remove 56 books containing LGBTQ content from the children’s section was brought before the advisory board of the Homer Public Library. Those books have been removed from circulation for review, pending a decision at a Jan. 17 meeting.
Having discussions about banned books, and the reasons why they are challenged, is important, Thurman said.
“There’s a confusion about what intellectual freedom is and what it means for us and what it means in a public library setting,” she said. “You have the right to petition the government, but then everyone else has the right to view the information that they want without restriction.”
The Banned Book Club has been a place for “a lot of very open-minded people to explore these ideas in a safe setting,” Thurman said.
“Not everybody agrees, and that’s exactly what I want to see. I want to have a good, safe discussion around these really tough topics.”
So the library has selected titles from a list of the top 100 most challenged books, with Thurman saying they’ve tried to alternate between fiction and nonfiction, and “choosing ones that speak to us.”
“Gender Queer” is a memoir by Kobabe about their experience figuring out their gender and ultimately identifying as nonbinary, using they/them pronouns. Thurman said that the book has been challenged nationwide for its depiction of the LGBTQ community and for its sexual content.
The text covers “what they experienced throughout their transition from being viewed as a girl through wanting to be seen as a gender neutral person,” Thurman said.
Any adults are welcomed to attend meetings, whether they have completed the month’s book or not. The club’s meeting on “Gender Queer” will be this Thursday at 6 p.m.
Next month’s title will be “The Bluest Eye,” a 1970 novel by Toni Morrison that has been challenged for its depictions of racism and sexual assault. The Banned Book Club will meet Jan. 26 at 6 p.m.
For more information about the Soldotna Public Library or events including monthly Book Club meetings, visit Facebook.com/SoldotnaLibrary or soldotna.org/library.