Mary Reilly-Kliss is a retired reading/language arts teacher, having spent 33 years working with young adults in grades 7-12. She was on the West Bend library board for 3 years. For the past year she served as co-secretary on the board. Mary also works at Fireside Books and Gifts, once part of the Little Professor chain, Fireside is an independent bookstore proudly serving West Bend for over 25 years.
KRRP: What was you initial reaction to the book challenges? How did your opinions and response change and evolve over time?
MRK: I value free speech and as such I felt it was important to ensure the Maziarkas’ right to express their opinion. The complaint, however, seemed to lack focus and changed over time – first their objections were about materials on the public library’s website and later included a list of a few book titles that kept growing. Furthermore, the challenges themselves were not filed per established procedure.
My initial response was related to the response of the Common Council which did not reappoint four of us, and did so based on a perception of library board procedures, as opposed to actual knowledge of the policies. It was the Common Council who felt the board members’ positions, including my own, to protect access to the books, went against community standards. This ultimately led to our dismissal. Attitudes of those who wanted the books censored really became clear when Alderman Terry Vrana said to me, “I don’t care what your policies are. I want those books off the shelf.”
I was appalled by this response, it reminded of the 1950’s and Senator Joe McCarthy. The CCLU’s call to burn the books was beyond absurd and in clear violation of our first amendment rights.
KRRP: On June 2, 2009, West Bend’s library board voted to keep the books where they are. What was your experience of this meeting and how did you feel upon hearing this decision?
I am proud of the board. Due to open records law, the board had not spoken amongst ourselves directly about this issue prior to the June 2nd meeting. Everyone read prepared statements which underscored the importance of intellectual freedom and the right to read.
We were also taken aback by some of the comments made by the public, most notably one person who asked for the tarring and feathering of the library director, and the destruction and public burning of books.
However, common sense and intellectual freedom prevailed and the board chose to keep books where they are.
KRRP: What sort of response did you receive from the community?
MRK: The West Bend community really came together to oppose this challenge. I think the actions of the CCLU really demonstrated just how far this challenge could go – a public burning and a costly lawsuit that if successful would cost our entire taxpaying community.
Led by Jacob Jurss, the West Bend community responded on May 29th by organizing a pot-luck, a march to and at read-in at the public library, where people gathered together to read banned books.
We also have received support from outside of West Bend, including from the Kids’ Right to Read Project and from the American Library Association who conducted a workshop and discussion of intellectual freedom at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. Brent Hartinger and Stephen Chbosky, whose books were included in the challenged, wrote letters in support of free speech.
KRRP: Reflecting on this controversy, what would you like the people in your community to know, especially the youth?
- You have to be aware. We have to be watchdogs to ensure that censorship does not happen.
- Speak up. No matter what your opinions are do not be afraid to share them. Throughout this entire process, I have been reminded over and over of the Dag Hammerskjold quote: “Never, for the sake of peace and quiet deny your own experience or convictions.”
For too long, young voices haven’t been heard and so it is vital that we demonstrate to our children that they have a vested interest in what happens in the local public library and wider community. If young people see results, like the June 2nd decision to keep the books where they are in West Bend, it reminds them of their own power to affect change in our society.
KRRP: Do you feel this issue has been resolved? What is your sense of the vibe at the library and in the community now?
MRK: My sense is that there will be more challenges to come. West Bend and the wider USA needs to find a balance in order to ensure every individual’s right to free speech and free expression is protected without imposing personal beliefs on others.
At the library it seems circulation is up – which is great – the more people read the better. It also appears that more people are hanging out in the Young Adult section.
KRRP: What advice would you offer to people in other areas facing similar threats of censorship?
MRK: We have to remain aware and act as watchdogs for our communities. Libraries, schools and local bookstores should work together to fight these challenges. At Fireside Books, we shared staff copies of the challenged titles in order to be fully informed and to speak amongst and ourselves and to our customers in an honest open way. Let’s push for citizen awareness. The more informed people are the better.
Information about the most challenged books in the USA should be readily available. When people see the list it really makes them stop and think about the issues. One of the questions that should be posed is whether the individuals challenging the books have actually read the entire text. Books should not be reduced to single words or passages, but should be judged as an entire work.
KRRP: The challenges focused on ‘homosexual’ themes in the books. Would you like to comment on this?
MRK: This is a huge part of the puzzle. I heard a statistic that every 15 minutes a young adult in this country commits suicide. Many of these youth are clearly struggling to come to terms with their sexuality and gender identity. As a former teacher, I say without hesitation that I would recommend the challenged books to my students. These novels demonstrate an understanding of individuality and humanity, At the meeting on the 2nd, a parent stood up and spoke about how her gay son could have used books like this 20 years ago to confront the rampant fear and mean spiritedness that often exists in schools and communities.