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The Peoria Public Library tackles controversial issues and banned books in new book club for youths

Jacob Roberts, children's reference assistant at PPL Lincoln and founder of Bookmarked
Jody Holtz
Jacob Roberts, children's reference assistant at PPL Lincoln and founder of Bookmarked.

Book banning is a subject that has seen an increase in attention all over the United States. Conversations about censorship aren’t new, but the number of books being challenged have reached record highs.

That’s one reason why the Peoria Public Library (PPL) Lincoln branch is debuting a new book club aimed at having difficult conversations around banned books, as well as books that deal with mental health, racism, and other sensitive topics.

Founder of the club Jacob Roberts, who is also a children’s reference assistant at PPL Lincoln branch, says after a lighthearted book club aimed at piquing children's interest in reading didn’t take off, he decided to go an alternative route.

“Just talk about the hard issues of their life, because after all Lincoln is in South Peoria, and I think a lot of those kids don’t really want to read about fantasy and things that don’t deal with the real world. They want to talk about the things that relate to them,” said Roberts.

The club, appropriately named Bookmarked, tries to resonate with middle and high school aged children by allowing them a safe space to talk about books and difficult issues that resonate with them or have marked them in some way. While the club doesn’t solely focus on books that are on the banned books list, a couple of them are, as many of these controversial topics are commonly reasons why a book is challenged in the first place, according to Jennifer Davis, manager of public relations for PPL.

“You’ll see a lot of the LGBTQ+ themes … some things that deal with racism, sexual assault, just issues that some parents feel are very sensitive, those are the ones you see on the list most often,” said Davis.

Jennifer Davis, public relations manager for PPL
Jody Holtz
Jennifer Davis, public relations manager for PPL

Across all the Peoria Public Libraries branches, Davis said only a handful of books have been challenged within the past few years. Generally, she says this is a testament to the community's willingness to engage with hard topics and allow the free exchange of ideas. Libraries serve as sources of information that strive to provide everyone equal access to that information without censorship. So, while she says there hasn’t been a big increase in book banning specifically in central Illinois, that’s not the case nationwide.

“The groups that track that, the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, you can see that they are saying we are seeing more just in the past year of book challenges than we've seen in the last couple decades,” said Davis.

This uptick in book challenges is a key component on why having dialogue about the themes being censored is so important. Roberts says as someone who works directly with children, he thinks there is never a need to ban books.

“I think that if someone is concerned with a message that a book has, then they can order another book. They can make sure both sides are heard, but really, I think kids need to explore that themselves,” Roberts said.

And that’s exactly what kids will be engaging with through Bookmarked. Roberts assures parents who may be concerned about the content that this is the safest space for teens and tweens to unpack these topics while using a book as a credible source.

The books the club will be reading were selected by Roberts based on the community that lives in South Peoria and what obstacles they may encounter daily, as well as considering certain monthly observances, such as Black History Month, and Mental Health Awareness Month. Though Roberts will be present in the space moderating the discussion, he emphasizes that the club is not about him.

“I planned it for a year out, however as I get to know the community that comes in, I want this to be about them, not about what I think they need and so once they get … hopefully more comfortable with me and the book club and each other, they’ll be more willing to share what they want to see,” said Roberts.

The next book the club will be covering is “March” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, which is a graphic novel trilogy about the Civil Rights movement told through the perspective of U.S Rep. John Lewis. Roberts says overall he wants the club to be a resource for kids in the community.

“What I hope they get from it is … that they have a safe place to go in the community, that they can go here, hopefully make some friends that have similar experiences to them, and then be able to find a better way to express how they feel and what they’re seeing in their lives.”

Davis emphasizes that you don’t have to live in South Peoria, or even be a member of the Peoria Public Library, to participate. The club is open to children from all areas and schools.

And though Davis hopes that participants see themselves in the books ... “I hope they also see something new. I hope people find themselves exposed to different lifestyles, different conversations.”

Bookmarked will be meeting the last Monday of each month at PPL Lincoln branch. There is also a Zoom option for the club, which will be posted prior to each meeting here.

The Peoria Public Library, in addition to libraries across the country, will be celebrating Banned Books Week to raise awareness of the issue of censorship, which takes place this year from Sept. 18-24.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.