I’ll admit, the whole idea of banning books makes me nervous. Challenges to school library collections, attempts to prosecute librarians, and cries to ban dozens of titles worry me. Legislators and parents’ groups say they’re keeping kids safe from inappropriate content. But defining such content is a prickly proposition.
Recent ban requests include the 20th century classics To Kill A Mockingbird (H. Lee), The Handmaid’s Tale (M. Atwood), and The Bluest Eye (T. Morrison). These prize-winning novels tackle tough issues of racism and sexism. Efforts to ban them may fit into a larger cultural conversation. Many current critics, uncomfortable with the way earlier generations expressed themselves on these topics, undervalue the preservation of these literary testaments to how far we’ve come.
Other ban efforts target 21st century titles whose authors speak to youth seeking race and gender equality. Motions to remove these titles attack young adult books like Not Every Boy Is Blue by George M. Johnson and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Art Speigelman’s Maus draws criticism for its frank depiction of the humiliation, degradation, and violence of Nazi Germany. I wonder how today’s students will find their way forward if we erase records of the past.
Advocates for freedom from censorship are speaking up against the proposed bans. Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter quote Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of the free-speech organization PEN America, in a recent New York Times article. “‘If you look at the lists of books being targeted, it’s so broad,’ Ms. Nossel said. Some groups, she noted, have essentially weaponized book lists meant to promote more diverse reading material, taking those lists and then pushing for all the included titles to be banned.” Parent’s associations use social media platforms to spread one-sided information on challenged titles. Concerned parents may be unfamiliar with the debated material or shy away from depictions of marginalized people. As controversy swirls, it’s hard not to notice that most of the titles in question discuss BIPOC, LGBTQ+ experiences.
Fractured politics tarnish the conversation as opposing sides line up with little hope of compromise. After tense meetings with salacious excerpts read out of context, librarians and educators suffer along with their students. School districts in several states registered criminal complaints against school librarians for distributing pornography to minors. In the case of Not All Boys Are Blue, Flagler County, Florida filed charges against the book itself.
The good news is that these censorship initiatives are failing. “So far, efforts to bring criminal charges against librarians and educators have largely faltered, as law enforcement officials in Florida, Wyoming and elsewhere have found no basis for criminal investigations. And courts have generally taken the position that libraries should not remove books from circulation.” (Harris & Alter, NYT 2/8/22) Many school boards who approved the removal of books in recent months have since walked back their bans, restoring materials to library shelves and reading lists.
Book bans are nothing new. From ancient times, power elites have sought to suppress cultural disruptors. But readers take interest in books that raise questions, inspire controversy, and move the conversation forward. Book banners, past and present, are the instruments of their own demise when they draw attention to the titles they oppose. What better book to read than the one accused of explicit content? How better to challenge the powers that be?
Peruse the lists and articles from the links below. Find a book; support the authors, publishers, school districts, and students you care for most.
by Emma Sarappo FEBRUARY 1, 2022, The Altlantic
Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.
by Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter Published Jan. 30, 2022Updated Feb. 8, 2022, The New York Times
The Fight to Ban Books
by Amelia Nierenberg Oct. 6, 2021, The New York Times
by SAMANTHA LOCK ON 11/13/20 AT 12:09 PM EST, Newsweek
One last thought…
“Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”