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Prisoner of Books (An Interview with Corey Michael Dalton)

Corey in his prison of books

So it goes

“If somebody claims to have all the answers, they are probably lying.” So says Corey Michael Dalton, who has locked himself in a prison made of banned books to celebrate Banned Books Week. Dalton doesn’t claim to have all the answers; he just has the humble wish that people will read more. His self-imposed exile is an attempt to raise awareness about censorship and reading.

“I didn’t realize that people still banned books,” says Dalton, who was asked to take part in this awareness campaign by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (KVML) in Indianapolis. They have a stake in the argument, as they worked to oppose the ban of Slaughterhouse-Five from Republic High School in Republic, Missouri last year. Dalton, aside from being a board member of the library, has another connection to Vonnegut. He is a former assistant editor of the Saturday Evening Post, which published several of Vonnegut’s early short stories.

The idea came about as a result of the Republic challenge to Slaughterhouse-Five because although the school has since placed the book back in the library, it remains restricted in what some term a “literary gulag.” It was decided that Corey would put himself in lock up as a form of protest for the treatment that Vonnegut’s work has received in the Republic school.

Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

If you’re not familiar with the Republic ban, you can “>read all about it online. In a nutshell, one parent complained to the school board about the novel being taught at Republic High School. Ironically, the man making the challenge did not have any children attending the school, as his own children were being homeschooled. He came armed with an alphabetized list of all the “bad” words in the novel and with complaints about the appropriateness of the content for high school students.

The KVML responded by offering free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to any student from the high school that contacted them. They have sent 75 copies of the book so far — a success in Dalton’s estimation, since the school did revise its policy of outright banning the book from the library, although it is still as good as banned since it is in a “secure” area of the library and only to be circulated to parents. The KVML stance is that the book is still banned because student access is restricted, so they decided that for Banned Books Week this year, they would ask Dalton to be “locked up with Vonnegut” as a protest against the restrictions.

All this week Dalton has stayed locked up in the library confined by a wall of books in the front window. He is spending the week blogging, working, and writing a short story which will be posted on the KVML website when it is finished.

Another thing that Dalton is doing is reading some of those books from the wall of banned books. When I met with him he was just trying to get into The Great Gatsby.

What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

I asked him about his favorite banned book. “The Catcher in the Rye” was his response. “It resonates because there is no better representation of that teenage depression and angst.” Like many of us, Dalton read the novel at a young age when it made a very lasting impression. I asked him about reasons that folks might have for banning a book like The Catcher in the Rye or Slaughterhouse-Five. “I think it shows a fear of confronting issues and a lack of confidence in dealing with those issues.”

People want to shelter children and fear exposing them to the world, but isn’t it better to face these difficult realities in a safe place like a classroom where you can deal with issues and begin to try to make sense of them without being faced directly with them like you might be in the real world? Couldn’t kids who might be going off to fight in an actual war be prepared for that possibility in the safe realm of a literature classroom? These are some of the questions Dalton ponders in his bookish prison this week.

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.

How should we deal with challenges to reading materials and book bans? Direct action is the response favored by Dalton. Efforts like that of the KVML to combat the banning of Slaughterhouse-Five by providing free books to students who wanted it are the model. “We have to have each other’s backs,” says Dalton.

People who oppose book banning must be organized in the same way as those who would censor. We must make people aware of the issue even if it involves doing what Dalton refers to as “crazy stunts” like the one he is doing. He illustrates his point by referring again to the Republic High School case where many community members were unaware that the school removed the book until the controversy erupted. The opposition to the banning, led by the KVML, and the subsequent media attention it created, raised awareness among community members who began to push back against the negative attention their school was receiving.

If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

Dalton shared a story from a conference that he attended in his role as editor of the children’s magazine Jack and Jill about a woman he met who was, in his assumption, very conservative. At one point during an informal session, he was sitting around the table with some of his colleagues when the topic of how he was spending Banned Books Week popped up in the conversation. He assumed that the woman’s response would be unfavorable to his project. She surprised him by giving him enthusiastic support for the project and saying how important she thought it was to raise awareness to improve literacy.

So it goes.

— Joel Bruns, currently reading Breaking into the Backcountry by Steve Edwards and listening to Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

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