Free Expression Friday: Villanova Students Perform Banned Books

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“Who Bans Books in the U.S. — And What Are They So Afraid Of?” 

This was the title of a performance and the question it explored a few weeks ago, when students in Villanova Communications Professor Heidi Rose’s Performance of Literature class gathered to bring banned books to life.

Occurring on October 30 and November 1 in Villanova’s Falvey Library, the two days of performances highlighted the book ban crisis by demonstrating the power of supposedly “objectionable” works of literature. The first performance saw the moderately-sized crowd they expected for a class performance. By the second day, however, word had gotten around, and the crowd had grown.

The issue is especially apt in the Villanova, Pennsylvania, area. Less than an hour away, Central Bucks School District has repeatedly made the news for book bans. (A week after the performances, five seats on the school board flipped, won by Democrats opposing book bans.) It isn’t much farther to Lancaster County, where books also face bans. (Their election went the other way.) 

The nearby bans partly inspired Dr. Rose to include banned books on the syllabus. “That shocked me, frankly,” she said of the bans. “That was definitely an inciting incident — just to know that [it’s happening] very close to campus.” 

Students performed passages from literature that had been banned somewhere in the U.S., some as monologues, some in pairs. Chosen works included The Giver, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Catcher in the Rye, The Glass Castle, The Bluest Eye, Lord of the Flies, The Hate U Give, Nineteen Minutes, Junie B. Jones, Animal Farm, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Monica Gonzalez, a Junior studying Communication and Peace and Justice Studies, chose a book that had impacted her personally: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

The novel consists of vignettes following Esperanza, a 12-year-old Chicana growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago.

“It deals with issues of poverty, gender, race, ethnicity issues,” says Gonzalez. “I chose the book because I’m [also] a Chicana girl who grew up in a Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago. I said during the introduction of my performance that I couldn't imagine my younger self not being able to read something that made me feel represented.”

She didn’t have to: the book was in her eighth grade curriculum. But she was shocked when she learned the book had been banned by school districts in Oregon and Arizona.

Thinking of The House on Mango Street as a banned book helped Monica see how important it is to have books like it available.

“I was imagining if I was unable to read this in eighth grade. A lot of people are arguing that book banning is for the safety and protection of children. I started thinking more about the positive effects that actually come out of reading these books that are being banned.”

Senior Kaitrin Karr similarly focused on the positive effects of reading banned books. Karr chose to perform a passage from John Green’s Looking for Alaska, which deals with themes of grief, struggles with mental health, and substance abuse. Performing a scene in which two teenagers grapple with the death of their friend in her former bedroom, Karr seized the chance to explore the deeper emotions in the scene as an exercise in empathy. At no point did it feel dangerous, neither in her recent performance nor when she first read it years ago.

“I was still pretty young [when I first read it],” she says. “But it opened me up to the mental health conversation in general. I wanted to learn more about how people were feeling, or if they were concealing how they're feeling. [It] made me a more empathetic person, where I’m trying to understand different aspects of people and what they're going through.”

In workshops and class discussions, students addressed the book ban crisis directly. Karr found that it led to other important discussions she’s grateful to have experienced.

“We could talk about religion, we could talk about sexuality — there are so many things that people touched on in their performances that opened [a space to talk about] all these issues.”

Dr. Rose sees in the performance the possibility of a movement.

“It gave me an idea of how cool it would be to take this on the road in some way and to use performance in public libraries or in independent bookstores. And to bring students — maybe high school students and college students — to create a collaboration where we bring the words to life in stores and public libraries, and to let that be part of the movement.”

In the meantime, the situation in Pennsylvania remains undecided. Mixed election results settle alongside impending book ban legislation. The Pennsylvania House recently passed SB 7, which would preemptively restrict works containing vaguely defined “sexual content” unless parents opt in to allow their children access. It marks a significant escalation from the “opt-out” policies most districts and parents find sufficient — and which few parents find occasion to use. 

The bill has landed in the house, where committee leadership has been disinclined to take it up. That’s a good thing. To keep it that way, Pennsylvania residents can call their state representatives to tell them to support the right to read by opposing SB 7.