Reader of the Banned: City Lit Theater Presents Books on the Chopping Block

Devoting one’s life to banning books undoubtedly cuts into one’s reading time. Those too busy to read the volumes they work so hard to keep others from perusing should consider attending the 18th installment of City Lit Theater’s annual Books on the Chopping Block series.

Taking place during Banned Books Week (October 1–7), local actors will read selections from the top 10 most challenged books of 2022, with the goal of—according to the theater’s site—“highlighting the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship.”

The list of books comes from the American Library Association’s (ALA’s) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). The OIF has kept track of the number of book challenges and bans in the nation’s libraries for the past 20 years. In 2022, per the ALA site, the OIF tallied 1,269 demands to censor books and resources in public, school, and classroom libraries and school curricula, with 2,571 specific titles singled out for censorship. A quick glance at the list reveals violence, drug use, profanity, disrespecting authority, as the usual suspects for provoking challenges. Notably, LGBTQ+ themes—often framed by the complainants as being age-inappropriate and sexually explicit—turn up as the main reason for challenging seven of the books on this year’s list. 

Photo taken at a previous Books on the Chopping Block event at Highland Park Library.
Left to right: Norine McGrath, Cat Hermes, Brandon Boler, Gordy Andina, and Katy Nielsen. Photo by Leslie Guthrie-Andina.

City Lit Theater’s hourlong presentations will take place at several libraries across Chicago, its suburbs, and elsewhere (see schedule below). Books on the Chopping Block director Katy Nielsen has had a stake in the event for almost as long as its been around. Starting out in 2006 as an assistant to City Lit Theater artistic director Terry McCabe (who was one of her professors at Columbia College), she eventually rose to her current position as the theater’s education director. Nielsen remembers 2006 as a tumultuous year for books. Several were challenged in Arlington Heights’ High School District 214, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and others.

“We thought we should do something with that,” said Nielsen. McCabe had already been talking with Judith Krug, director of the OIF. They drafted a short script featuring excerpts from the books and read them at an Evanston bookstore.

“That was my first paid acting gig out of college,” recalls Nielsen.

To summarize, a book is considered challenged when a person or group files a formal written complaint requesting the book’s removal. When a book is banned it is removed from a school or library’s circulation or from a reading list. Book challenges happen more often than banning, but the former can lead to the latter. The ALA keeps track of complaints and releases their list for the previous year each spring. This year’s list features Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, Flamer by Mike Curato, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, among others. Originally, the first installments of Books on the Chopping Block simply consisted of readers reading from photocopies. Now a formal script is drafted to feature passages from the challenged titles while addressing the back story of why they were challenged.

Books on the Chopping Block rehearsal. Pictured: Brian Pastor, Brandon Boler, Noelle Klyce, and Lynda Cortez

“It's been interesting to watch the subject matter fluctuate and change over the years,” Nielsen continues. “Some years, the book challenges focused on teen girls exploring their sexuality for a really long time. like Twilight and YA books about young girls thinking about sex. Then it was very LGBTQ+ focused. As we enter this realm, it becomes more and more LGBTQI+ focused, but also more trans issues. And as the conversations around critical race theory started to percolate, and ever since the George Floyd protests in 2020, we see Black titles, historical titles, and books talking about the Black experience in America showing up a lot. So it's been interesting to witness those patterns.”

Creating the script is part of the process, but finding the right cast to bring it to life is equally important.

“It used to be just me, and whoever was available, reading. As we move forward, we are more and more concerned with representation.” The theater sought cast members that better reflected the various books’ demographics.

“I actually don't really read any more, as much as I love to. We don't really need to hear from a white lady right now. So the cast this year is mostly Black, transgender, non-binary, and Hispanic people. And rightly so.” Nielsen further sought to include excerpts that gave these groups a greater voice. It’s not always so cut and dried. Book challenges aren’t always a Bradbury fantasy of freedom-loving idealists versus jackbooted prigs.

“That is where the rubber really meets the road. Because we're not here to push an agenda…” says Nielsen. “Of course, we want to talk about the experiences of BIPOC people, trans people, and LGBTQ+ people. But sometimes there's a book like, for example, Skippyjon Jones. It was a book on the list a couple of years ago, and it is legitimately problematic.”

Skippyjon Jones is the main character of a popular children’s book series. A small Siamese cat with a giant head who believes he’s a chihuahua, given to speaking heavily accented “Spanglish.” Enough said.

“We read it, and we talked about it. And we talked about why it's problematic. And we had the discussion with the audience. We didn't read it in Speedy Gonzales voices, you know. But the point is that this is anti-censorship work. And censorship is a threat to an educated democracy.”

Nielsen continues:

“If you have a problematic book, it's important to bring it out in the open and talk about it, and why is it problematic, and why is the challenge just as important as talking about the experiences of book number two, All Boys Aren't Blue. the experience of a gay black man is important to talk about, it's important to talk about why this problematic book is making people angry.”

Attendees can expect a simply furnished affair at the individual libraries. Four actors on four chairs, facing the audience, standing up only while reading. 

“We're all friends here. There's no fourth wall.” says Nielsen. 

Afterward, there’s a optional discussion. Audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own experiences with book banning or a particular book that touched them. Appropriate for the libraries hosting them, the events are free and open to all.

Schedule:

Wednesday, September 27, at 7 p.m.—Vernon Area Library, 300 Olde Half Day Road, Lincolnshire

Monday, October 2, at 6 p.m.—Bellwood Public Library, 600 Bohland Ave., Bellwood

Tuesday, October 3, at 4 p.m.—Edgewater Branch—Chicago Public Library, 6000 N. Broadway, Chicago

Wednesday, October 4, at 4 p.m.—Lincoln Belmont Branch—Chicago Public Library, 1659 W. Melrose, Chicago

Thursday, October 5, at 7 p.m.—Highland Park Public Library, 494 Laurel Ave., Highland Park

Friday, October 6, at 1 p.m.—DePaul University Library, 2350 N. Kenmore Ave., Chicago. This performance is also available to view remotely. Register free here.

Saturday, October 7, at 2 p.m.—River Forest Public Library, 735 Lathrop Ave., River Forest

Bonus Performance:

Tuesday, November 14,  6 p.m.—Women of Temple Sholom Banned Books Event, 3480 N. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago

For more information, visit the City Lit Theater site.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.