This year, Banned Books week—a national “annual celebration of the right to read”—according to the official event website, falls on September 18 to 24, and Chapel Hill Public Library is holding its annual Banned Books Trading Cards contest to celebrate. According to the Chapel Hill contest website, entrants must make original works of art “inspired by books or authors that have been challenged, censored, or banned.” Seven winners receive a hundred-dollar prize; their works become trading cards that are available for free to the public and there is an exhibition featuring the entries.
Library director, Susan Brown, who conceived of the contest and who administers it, explained that “on the back of the card, as a riff on sports trading cards we put the ‘stats’ about why the book has been banned or challenged; we [also] put the artist’s information, and part of the artist’s statement on the back.” For example, a 2019 winning entry by local resident Heather Jolley Smith, featured Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis, with the following “Reason for Banning”: “This autobiographical graphic novel about coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution was pulled from Chicago schools for ‘graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh-grade curriculum.’ At present, it can only be taught in Chicago high schools by teachers with special training.” Brown noted that the trading cards “have become beloved collectable items in the Chapel Hill area.”
Brown hopes that the trading cards will help the public feel more informed of, and connected to, policy issues surrounding intellectual freedom: “The idea of the project is that it’s educating and engaging folks about issues of censorship and the freedom to read [in] a really different way. I tell people it’s engaging but it’s outraging. Like, people read these cards, and they are outraged that Winne the Pooh has been banned or Charlotte’s Web.” She also hopes that people will “recognize how many talented artists we have here in Chapel Hill.”
Pre-Covid, the library also hosted pop-up galleries on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, “including a five-year retrospective of all of the winners, which was very popular,” Brown said. In other years, the town has displayed the some of the winning entries on local buses.
According to Brown, contest entries perennially feature certain banned classics such as Bradbury’s 1984, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The cards also often touch on current political issues: for example, when HB2, the controversial North Carolina “bathroom bill” was in the news, an artist entered a card celebrating Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, with the drawing of figure standing hesitantly in front of a bathroom door.
Brown anticipates that this year’s entries might include depictions of the current banned books in the news, including Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer and Johnathan Evison’s Lawn Boy, a coming-of-age novel about a young Mexican American boy that has faced challenges for featuring a gay protagonist.
Brown said of the project, “we here at Chapel Hill Public library…want to be that place where all are welcome…There’s a diversity of viewpoints it the world and just because you don’t approve of, or like, the choices that a book represents doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be of value to someone else. And that’s really at the heart of this.”
The Banned Books week programing at Chapel Hill library will kick off on Friday, September 16, with a sneak peek of the contest entries; members of the community and all of the artists are welcome to come celebrate with wine and cupcakes. The exhibit will officially launch on Sunday, September 18 and generally runs for four to eight weeks, during which time the trading cards featuring the winning entries are available to pick up. In addition, the library will host two other programs: there will be a community conversation in partnership with Carolina Public Humanities on book banning and the freedom to read and a “Banned Books Read Aloud” during which excerpts of famously banned books will be read by members of the community in an effort to “normalize” the content of banned books.
Learn more about Banned Books week and view winning entries from previous years at: https://chapelhillpubliclibrary.org/banned-books/