When controversial books are challenged, some people try to keep them off library shelves. Not at the Lawrence Public Library, where local artists are called upon every year to create their own trading cards inspired by famously banned books.
About 80 artists submitted designs for this year’s slate of trading cards, with the seven winning pieces unveiled Friday. It’s Banned Books Week at libraries across the country, and, in honor of the occasion, the Lawrence Public Library is handing out a new card (for free) each day.
Heather Kearns, marketing director at the library, said the project has continued to grow in popularity since its debut in 2012, each year attracting more entries from professional and amateur artists alike. Many, she said, come from local schools, where teachers sometimes encourage entire classes to submit their own trading cards.
“If you have an idea you want to submit, you can submit. It’s really open to everybody,” Kearns said of the project. “That’s probably why it’s so popular — it’s just a really engaged community art contest.”
This year’s winning artists are Elijah Jackson (“In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak), Maya Weslander (Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”), Lana Grove (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot), Brisa Andale (Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”), Lora Jost (“Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” by F. Arturo Rosales), Chelsea Karma McKee (Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”) and Johanna Harrison (“The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood).
Each year, the American Library Association (which also sponsors Banned Books Week celebrations nationwide) releases a list of the top 10 most challenged books from the previous year. Oftentimes, Kearns said, the most challenged books are written for children and teens and deal in topics considered inappropriate, by some, for younger readers.
This year’s trading card designs include more recent selections, like 2006’s “Fun Home" (about a young woman struggling with her sexual identity and her decision to come out to her family) and 2010’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The latter book, which tells the true story of one African-American woman whose cancer cells helped advance medical research for decades after her 1951 death, was challenged by a Tennessee mother in 2015 for its “pornographic” description of Lacks discovering a tumor on her cervix, among other passages.
But the trading cards, on display now at the Lawrence Public Library, also reference works that have long been revered as classics, too. Kearns said previous entries have included such celebrated books as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and “1984,” which might surprise some.
“I just think it’s really important to think about why books are banned and challenged and why the content would make someone uncomfortable — but also why it’s important to celebrate those stories,” Kearns said.
Oftentimes, the most challenged books are written from the perspective of people who have been “marginalized,” she said — those whose stories aren’t often told, much less understood. Confronting our discomfort — or asking why others might feel discomfort — with these works, Kearns said, can serve as a great “empathy-building experience.”
“I think it’s important to ask, ‘Why do we feel this is controversial? And what makes us uncomfortable about this book?’” she said. “It opens our minds to explore other experiences that we might not necessarily be exposed to in our everyday lives.”
The Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., will hand out a new trading card each day of Banned Books Week, wrapping up Saturday. For more information on this year’s trading cards, visit lawrence.lib.ks.us.