It’s Banned Books Week again. I wish I could just tell a nice story about how valuable some books that might be controversial were to me when I was growing up. Or even a nice piece about how hard it can be to let go when you’re a parent, to trust your kids and give them the freedom to explore answers to questions you may not be prepared to answer yet.
But not this year.
Banned Books Week Comes amidst a Lot of Right Wing Censorship Efforts
Not with Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law which is bad for all kids, not just LGBTQ+ kids. And not with the “Stop Woke Act,” which, thankfully, has been partially blocked by a judge because it violates the First Amendment, (although the state plans to appeal that ruling.) Both of these laws are being used to restrict what teachers can say, what they can teach and what books are permitted in classrooms and school libraries.
Not when a teacher in Oklahoma got into hot water for sharing the Brooklyn Public Library’s QR code for their Books Unbanned project (which allows any teenager in the US to access their online collection). Or when libraries are removing Pride displays in children’s areas, as happened in Smithtown, New York, only about twenty minutes from where I grew up. The decision to remove the displays was opposed by the New York Library Association and Governor of New York Kathy Hochul, and, only days after the removal of the displays, they were restored in all of the Smithtown libraries.
More Banned Books in 2022 than in Previous Years
I could keep going, pointing out efforts to restrict access to, remove, or otherwise ban books. It’s not like I’d run out of examples. The American Library Association released their latest numbers on book challenges. The data they collected this year shows a sharp increase in censorship efforts. In fact, 2022 is on track to have the greatest number of book bans since the ALA began keeping track. When these numbers were released, 2022 still had four months to go.
The article says that in 2021 there were 729 attempts to censor library materials affecting 1597 titles. (Some book banning campaigns will attack multiple titles at once.) Eight months into 2022 there have already been 681 efforts to ban materials, covering 1651 titles. In the past, efforts to ban books tended to target a single title; recent efforts have targeted several titles at a time. As if that weren’t enough, the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has documented twenty seven incidents in which police reports were filed against librarians over the books on the shelves.
Is it Even Worth it to Ask Why?
Do they actually think the simple act of shelving a book they disapprove of is a criminal act? Are they against libraries as a whole and trying to deliver death by a thousand cuts? It’s hard to tell. But these scorched earth tactics are taking their toll on librarians. The whole situation feels frighteningly close to a Fahrenheit 451 inspired future.
As you begin to examine the ALA’s lists of the top ten most challenged books, there are themes that come up again and again. To no one’s surprise, LGBTQ+ themes, race issues and sexuality are probably the most frequently challenged themes. Books that might bring up difficult conversations, conversations that adults may not be prepared to have, are under attack.
Adults REALLY Ban Books to Save themselves from Awkward Conversations
Is lack of preparation by adults an excuse for not having those conversations? For trying to keep kids away from information? I don’t think so.
When I think back to my own childhood and adolescence, in the pre-internet days, we still looked for the same kinds of things that adults around us might not have been ready to talk about. We couldn’t Google “sex” or “big boobs” but we certainly found things in the encyclopedia or the card catalogue. We had countless issues of National Geographic magazine when we wanted to see pictures of topless women. And just like kids today, we shared the information we found and the images we saw. We also shared plenty of misinformation with each other… just like kids today do. Occasionally, we backed adults into corners where they had to have conversations about things they might not have been ready to talk about. Or for us to know about. Someone had to correct the misinformation we had learned from other kids. Just like today.
Some Personal History
Unsurprisingly, many of the same themes that were used as reasons to ban books when I was growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s still dominate book banning efforts today. LGBTQ issues and sex were among the top reasons for campaigns to ban books, and they remain there today. Back then, classics were under attack. Books like The Great Gatsby (because of its sexual content). The Grapes of Wrath (for discussions of sex and anti-religious content). So were picture books like Heather Has Two Mommies or Daddy’s Roommate, both challenged for their queer themes. Contemporary novels like The Color Purple and Beloved were challenged for their sexual content and depictions of violence.
Books (and Policies) that Helped me Grow
I’ve written about the ways my own queerness was a taboo subject. But I was also living in a very different world from where these books were being banned and restricted. The Great Gatsby was required reading in eleventh grade. Beloved was recommended to me by a tenth grade teacher who noticed some of the other books I was reading. And The Grapes of Wrath was one of the options we were given for an eighth grade social studies project. (Among the other titles I remember on that list were The Jungle, Gone with the Wind, My Antonia and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I’ve read them all, and from what I can recall, any one of them could have been challenged on similar grounds to other books that were challenged at the time.)
Lists of top 100 most often banned or challenged books of the decadefor the last three decades have included non-fiction books about topics like puberty or where babies come from. From books as basic as Peter Mayle’s Where Did I Come From to books as in depth as Corey Silverberg’s Sex is a Funny Word.
Banning Books Leads Kids to Seek Answers Elsewhere
Hiding the information that kids need (like details about puberty or the birds and the bees) has never worked. It doesn’t make the information any less important for kids to have. What it does do is leave kids searching for those answers on their own. Without help, but also without the feeling that someone has their back. They may seek out answers on Google or from other kids. Either risks a world of misinformation. When the adults are unwilling to have those difficult conversations, it teaches kids that these subjects are off limits. They become afraid to ask questions about anything, especially hard questions. It also deprives adults of opportunities to talk not only about factual answers but about how morals and values might apply to the subjects being discussed.
Recent challenges have shined a spotlight on queer content and books that address racial issues. Both fiction and non-fiction titles are represented on these lists.
Banning Books Damages Libraries
The impact of these efforts to restrict access to books may have long lasting consequences. We can keep track of books that are challenged, restricted or removed from library questions. But what about the books never purchased by libraries? Librarians are reporting that they have chosen to avoid purchasing some books. Either on their own or under the direction of their supervisors. They may make choices about books to add to their collections with an eye towards avoiding potential challenges. These avoidance strategies seem to impact small-town and rural libraries more than libraries in cities. Which just underlines the idea that these bans are hurting the people who are already hurting. People who don’t live in urban centers; people who already have fewer educational resources at their disposal.
Libraries, and librarians, are pillars of their communities. Even apart from keeping the bookshelves stocked. Kids and adults alike take classes at the library. We attend events there: meet-and-greet with an author or local politician, movie-night, community theater. Storytime with the librarians was one of my favorite activities as a young child. And as a parent of young children. This spate of book-bannings is quite literally taking educational resources out of the hands of both children and adults. But it’s also putting a strain on the library.
Librarians are tired of having their methods questioned. They’re tired of the threats. Some of them are quitting or retiring. And that puts a strain on the community. What happens when a library that used to employ five librarians loses two of them because they’re too intimidated? Or too stressed? Or just too tired? And then the library can’t find anyone to replace them. Because nobody wants to work where they won’t feel respected and appreciated. What happens to those events and those classes? Who teaches computer literacy to the kids and seniors? Who notices the kid with haunted eyes who comes in and sits quietly in the corner? And who makes sure to buy/shelve books that spark a young person’s imagination? Instead of the ones least likely to get the librarian sued, or fired, or thrown in prison.
We put a great deal of faith in librarians to choose and recommend books. We want them to be able to select books appropriate to the age and emotional maturity of children they serve. In doing that, we have to recognize that there may be a wide range of emotional maturity. Even among children who are the same age. We want librarians to be able to cultivate collections that represent all of the members of the communities they serve. The barrage of challenges restrict librarians’ ability to do that. Fear is driving the contents of library collections. Which is leading to the needs of the community not being met.
As Kids, we Rely on So-Called “Banned” Books to Teach us the Things Adults Will Not
I can’t help but reflect on how important the kinds of books that are being challenged meant to me when I was growing up. Judy Blume, whose books have been challenged countless times in the decades since they’ve been published, provided so much of the information I needed growing up. Iggie’s House dealt with racism, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret talked about puberty, and was the first book that I read that openly discussed menstruation. And Forever… provided a lot of information about sex, and led me to begin learning more about contraception with its discussion of the Pill, IUDs, and diaphragms (which up until then had only been part of the respiratory system).
And these were books I was reading long before I found solace and answers in whatever queer books I could find at the public library. They were books that I read that helped me to formulate some big questions that I might not have had the language to talk about before. Sometimes they were questions that I wasn’t ready to talk about with anyone yet… But because books were available to me, I could understand the questions, and when I was ready, I could ask. When books led me to questions that I was ready to talk about, they helped me to find a place to begin conversations.
As A Parent, I Have New Appreciation for these Books
Many years later, the roles had shifted, and I was the parent who wasn’t necessarily ready to have certain conversations or wasn’t sure how to begin some difficult conversations. I used the same strategy, but in reverse. I would leave a book about whatever it was that I thought we needed to talk about where the kids might find it. When I knew they had picked it up (usually because I would find it tucked into someone’s bed or “hidden” under a stack of other books in the bathroom,) I could use the book as a conversation starter. I might ask opinions, or ask if they had questions or even just begin a conversation about the parts that I found most interesting.
It is undeniable that not every child is ready for every book at the same time. We typically think of this in terms of reading levels, but there are other things like emotional maturity or social support to consider. In my own home, my older kid developed a deep interest in Dr Martin Luther King Jr at around four years old. Because of this, we added a number of books about him to our library. It was a great opportunity to expand on the topic of racism and on the history of the civil rights movement in the US. As I chose books about those topics, I talked with other people about the content. I talked about related resources which meant that I could add books that matched not only the reading level, but also the emotional maturity and sensitivity of the child.
Books Make it Easier to Have the Hard Conversations with your Kids
Those conversations helped me to choose books about some difficult and sometimes scary historical events that did talk about the violence that has been a significant part of the civil rights movement in ways that both opened doors for conversation and questions but also wouldn’t overwhelm the child with details that they weren’t ready to process yet. It didn’t mean not talking about some of the more difficult parts of history, but rather, it meant choosing how to talk about those things in ways that worked for that child. And when it was time to talk with my second child about some of these things, I knew it would require different explanations and different approaches and even some different books.
Most of the books in the house at any given time would not have been age-appropriate for my youngest, one way or another. There were books for me that had a higher concentration of sex and violence than would be appropriate for a kid. There were books for my oldest that went into more detail than my youngest was ready for on a variety of sensitive issues. What would my bookshelves have looked like if every book in the house had to be safe for my youngest to stumble across? Certainly it wouldn’t have been right not to have materials in the house for my first kid just because my second wasn’t ready yet.
Censorship Advocates Don’t Understand how Education Works
But that’s exactly what groups like Moms for Liberty are trying to do. They’re trying to claim that because a book isn’t appropriate for some kids, or because some parents may not want their children to have access to that book, the book should be off limits to all. One of their favorite arguments is to claim that books dealing with sex or sexuality, especially queer sexuality, are “pornographic.”
They’re also big fans of misusing the term “grooming.” Implying that it’s possible to turn children queer just by talking about loving relationships between adults who happen to be the same gender. Or to turn children trans just by talking about the fact that trans people exist. And have for thousands of years. This strategy waters down the real meaning of grooming, and can lead to people not recognizing the signs of actual grooming. Which leads to children becoming even more vulnerable to people who really do want to harm them. So they succeed in getting a few books off the shelf and banning sex-ed from classrooms. Meanwhile a scoutmaster or teacher is doing irreparable harm to the young people in their care.
As an avid reader, a writer, and a parent, I’m not okay with some other group deciding what should or shouldn’t be available to all library users. Librarians are there to help all of the members of a community, not just a few. This means that sometimes a library will have books we find objectionable, no matter where you might fall on the political spectrum, what your religion might be or any other group you might be affiliated with. Libraries belong to everyone. Just because a book may be available from book sellers or online doesn’t mean it’s accessible to all the people who want to read it. Libraries are often an equalizer, providing information and support to anyone who is looking.
Librarians and Teachers Need our Trust and our Support
We extend a certain amount of trust when we turn the education of our children over to teachers and choose not to do it ourselves. We don’t try to tell math teachers not to teach multiplication because some children may not be ready. Instead we provide extra support to the children who may not be ready. And we don’t have adults telling us that no child should learn multiplication because their child isn’t ready for it yet. We trust math teachers to teach, even if some adults complain about not being able to make sense of the way math is being taught to children today. We need to grant the same trust to our humanities teachers, to our English and Social Studies teachers whose subjects have a lot more room for interpretation.
Some Communities are Fighting Back Against Racist/Homophobic/Christian Nationalist Censorship
Things aren’t totally hopeless. There are some really amazing things going on to fight book bans.
In response to a campaign by the wife of a library board member to have nineteen titles removed from the library’s collection, the library board in Wellington, Colorado recently voted to ban book bans. Christine Gaiter, who headed up the campaign for the ban based her selections on a list of books being challenged elsewhere in public school libraries. She suggested that the books on the list were “pornographic.” And accused the library of endorsing children reading pornography without parental permission. Even though most of the challenged books were shelved in the adult fiction section of the library. She suggested that the library was acting as an adult entertainment business according to the town’s land use code. Her reasoning, as she explained it to the library board? “The library is not being inclusive of my Christian Ethics.”
I could go on and on and on about Christian hegemony, but that’s a topic for another column. Suffice it to say that I don’t think Christine Gaiter actually understands what inclusive means. No one is forcing anyone to read or to check out the books she objected to. (We’ll set aside the ridiculousness of taking a school library list and applying those same content standards to the public library. Which serves adults and not only children. We’ll also set aside the fact that I doubt she’s ready any of the titles in question.) But inclusive doesn’t mean excluding titles you find objectionable. It means that there are materials available to people who want to read those books. AND having books available that don’t offend people like Christine Gaiter.
Wellington, Colorado Banning Book Bans isn’t the Only Positive Story.
Parents in the Fort Bend Independent School District near Houston, Texas, can now opt in to receive notification about the books their children check out of the school library. Fort Bend has dealt with book challenges and even removed books from the library, as have other nearby school districts. And this time the response is being led by students–the people who are most affected by the ban. Teenagers in Fort Bend are launching a book club in response to book bans and invasions of student privacy. This is definitely a bright spot in a bleak situation.
I think the librarians of #Freadom have summarized things more eloquently than I can:
“We support parents/family members as partners in their own child’s learning, and encourage conversations with librarians and principals about their reading wishes for their own child. But libraries also adhere to board policies that, ‘A parent’s ability to exercise control over reading, listening or viewing matter extends only to his or her own child.’”