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Banned Books Week is an annual effort to fight for intellectual freedom. This year the theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us” and the fight could not feel more urgent.
Banned Books By the Numbers
This Friday, the American Library Association (ALA) reported that between January and August of this year, there have been 681 attempts to ban or restrict 1,651 unique library materials. This is up from 1,597 titles last year, which was the most in the ALA’s 20 years of record keeping.
ALA’s President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada explains these bans across the country as targeted and silencing.
“The unprecedented number of challenges we’re seeing already this year reflects coordinated, national efforts to silence marginalized or historically underrepresented voices and deprive all of us – young people, in particular – of the chance to explore a world beyond the confines of personal experience.”
There have actually been fewer incidences of bans (681 this year compared to 729 in 2021), but this speaks to the sweeping nature of the bans. It’s not really about any supposed “harm” that one specific book could cause a young reader. Nor is it just about individually upset parents or school board members who make headlines.
As of this spring, all but fourteen states have introduced or passed legislation attempting to limit the reading materials in schools and libraries, bringing ban attempts to another level.
Librarians and teachers are worried (and should be!) because this type of coordinated effort is attempting to silence entire communities, most of which are marginalized voices.
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Which Books Are Being Banned?
Of the top 10 banned books from 2021, all but one (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) were written by and prominently feature people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community.
For example, Gender Queer, which tops the list at number one, is a graphic memoir by a nonbinary author banned for “sexually explicit images.”
According to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, the top three reasons books are banned are due to being “sexually explicit,” “unsuited to any age group,” or containing “offensive language.”
These categories are vague, which leaves the door open for broad interpretations, political agendas, and fear-mongering. It allows challengers to deem any LGBTQ+ sexuality as explicit and any discussion of race as unsuitable for students in school.
In these views, the use of the N-word and racial stereotypes in To Kill a Mockingbird are okay because it’s canon, but The Hate U Give’s challenge of racism and police brutality is “indoctrination of a social agenda.”
Why Ban Books?
So, why are we seeing rampant book banning? To put it simply, political propaganda.
In July, I wrote about Christopher Rufo (the man largely responsible for lighting the Critical Race Theory fire) and his new campaign against so-called gender ideology. He’s using fear tactics to strike a nerve with conservatives and parents, and once again blaming schools for indoctrination.
Books in libraries and school libraries are the perfect target, just as lessons on racial diversity and true history were for CRT.
News sources (Rufo regularly appears on Fox shows like Laura Ingraham) are telling viewers that their children are being “forced to change their gender” instead of the truth about life-affirming care for LGBTQ+ students.
Conservative media and pundits are working to inflame fear and anger against queer people and people of color. And in the process, they’re offering viewers an easy target: books.
So What Can We Do to Fight for Banned Books?
There are clear freedoms outlined in the Library Bill of Rights to combat these book bans, which include school libraries, which should be spaces to promote, foster, and support “intellectual freedom.” Here are a few of these rights:
- Collection materials should represent diverse viewpoints.
- Patrons, including students, should not be discriminated against based on age or perceived maturity or literacy level.
- Personal, social, political, or religious views should not constrict library materials, and librarians should resist pressure from outside groups to alter their collections.
- Parents can advise their own children on library materials they want them to access, but they don’t have the right to restrict all materials for all children.
Our school libraries and classrooms should be spaces of intellectual freedom that represent the diversity of lived experiences. Librarians, educators, parents, and community members need to, once again, use their voices to fight censorship.
To celebrate this Banned Books Week, especially amidst record-breaking bans and upcoming midterm elections when everything seems daunting, don’t let fear silence the authentic voices we all need.
An action list from Book Riot encourages us to show up at our local libraries and request banned books and more titles by people of color and LGBTQ+ folks. We need to attend our local school board meetings to advocate for diverse, enriching titles in our libraries and in curriculums. Make sure to research school and library board elections and turn out to vote.
Because in the words of the often banned The Perks of Being a Wallflower author, Stephen Chobosky, “Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight.”
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