Banned Books as Speaking Truth to Power

Words Have Power
Ellie Roscher: an Introduction

There is a dif­fer­ence between keep­ing peace and mak­ing peace. It is not about avoid­ing dis­com­fort and try­ing to keep every­body hap­py, but brave­ly join­ing in the work of jus­tice. At Peace-olo­gy, we explore how to active­ly build a peace­ful world at the per­son­al, inter­per­son­al, insti­tu­tion­al, and sys­temic level.

Books can gen­tly and bold­ly speak truth to pow­er. Books can chal­lenge minds and shape soci­ety. Books help build capac­i­ty for com­pas­sion and empa­thy. Books can call us to a high­er ground where we live out our ideals and cre­ate jus­tice in our com­mu­ni­ties. Books can bring rev­o­lu­tion as water molds rocks one wave at a time. The pow­er of books to ush­er in peace and jus­tice is evi­dent in our grow­ing list of banned books.

Edu­ca­tors and par­ents can inten­tion­al­ly pull banned books off the shelf to read and engage with these books with young peo­ple. Putting the sto­ries back in cir­cu­la­tion is a way of speak­ing truth to pow­er and ampli­fy­ing nar­ra­tives that call for jus­tice and chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. We can also talk to kids about banned books. Why does this banned book make folks uncom­fort­able? Why would peo­ple invest time and ener­gy to cen­sor it? Why may it be impor­tant for us to read it? Read­ing banned books and talk­ing about the dan­ger of ban­ning books with kids is the work of peace building.

Caren Stelson: Read Banned Picture Books

Accord­ing to Pen Amer­i­ca, 1,648 unique indi­vid­ual titles have been banned in schools between July 2021 and June 2022. Suzanne Nos­sel, Chief Exec­u­tive Offi­cer of PEN Amer­i­ca, offers this insight: “While we think of book bans as the work of indi­vid­ual con­cerned cit­i­zens, our report demon­strates that today’s wave of bans rep­re­sents a coör­di­nat­ed cam­paign to ban­ish books being waged by sophis­ti­cat­ed, ide­o­log­i­cal and well-resourced advo­ca­cy organizations.”

Pic­ture books have not been spared from chal­lenged and banned book lists. Recent­ly pub­lished pic­ture books, The 1619 Project: Born on the Water chron­i­cling the slave resis­tance in the US as well as And Tan­go Makes Three, the true sto­ry of two male pen­guins rais­ing a chick togeth­er, have been banned and tak­en off the shelves. 

Ban­ning books is not new. Remem­ber the pic­ture book The Sto­ry of Fer­di­nand by Munro Leaf, illus­trat­ed by Robert Lawson?

First pub­lished in 1936 by Viking Press and now a clas­sic, The Sto­ry of Fer­di­nand fea­tures a gen­tle Span­ish bull that prefers smelling flow­ers at home to a star­ring role in the bull fight­ing ring.

Released two months after the out­break of the Span­ish Civ­il War, The Sto­ry of Fer­di­nand ran head­long into a firestorm of cul­ture wars and wartime pol­i­tics. Fran­cis­co Fran­co of Spain banned the book as a neg­a­tive paci­fist les­son to chil­dren. Germany’s Adolf Hitler ordered the book burned. Speak­ing against oppres­sion and fas­cism, Fer­di­nand won praise from Thomas Mann, Eleanor Roo­sevelt and Gand­hi.  

The his­to­ry of Fer­di­nand is star­tling, and the jump in the num­ber of books chal­lenged and banned today is fright­en­ing. What hap­pens when soci­eties spi­ral into oppres­sion or war and the free­dom to read itself is chal­lenged? Pic­ture book author/illustrator Jeanette Win­ter reminds us with two of her pic­ture books, Nasreen’s Secret School and The Librar­i­an of Basra.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Sto­ry from Afghanistan pub­lished in 2003 shares the sto­ry of a trau­ma­tized lit­tle girl who has not spo­ken a word since her father was tak­en away by the Tal­iban and her moth­er dis­ap­pears in search of her hus­band. Nas­reen and her grand­moth­er are left to sur­vive in a soci­ety where women have lost their free­doms and girls are for­bid­den to go to school. It is up to Nasreen’s grand­moth­er to care for her grand­daugh­ter and find the light that will spark Nasreen’s imag­i­na­tion and hope. Step­ping through an open door to a secret school, Nas­reen steps into a world of books, ideas, and friends. Learn­ing to read gives Nas­reen the gift to imag­ine a more peace­ful world no one can take from her.

The Librar­i­an of Bas­ra: A True Sto­ry from Iraq pub­lished in 2005 is Jen­nette Winter’s trib­ute to Alia Muham­mad Bak­er and her four­teen years of ser­vice as a librar­i­an for her beloved Iraqi com­mu­ni­ty. When war comes, only Alia wor­ries about the books in the library… The books are in every lan­guage — new books, ancient books, even a biog­ra­phy of Muham­mad that is sev­en hun­dred years old. She asks the gov­er­nor for per­mis­sion to move them to a safe place. He refuses.

And so, Alia Muham­mad Bak­er moves all 30,000 books to her house and her friends’ hous­es. Alia the brave librar­i­an saves her country’s cul­ture by sav­ing the books.

Nasreen’s Secret School and The Librar­i­an of Bas­ra have been chal­lenged by par­ents in Flori­da, Michi­gan, and New York with a call to remove these pic­ture books from the shelves. Why? Because they say these books “pro­mote” anoth­er reli­gion besides Chris­tian­i­ty and take place in vio­lent set­tings of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Our librar­i­ans here at home, like the Iraqi librar­i­an Alia Muham­mad Bak­er, are try­ing to save books for chil­dren, like Nas­reen, who yearn to read and learn. In a recent press release by the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, librar­i­ans have put out a call to action: “Library pro­fes­sion­als trust indi­vid­u­als to make their own deci­sions about what they read and believe. ALA and our part­ners in the Unite Against Book Bans cam­paign are ask­ing read­ers every­where to stand with us in the fight against censorship.”

Ellie Roscher: The Adult on the Rug

If you want to have a con­ver­sa­tion with your stu­dents or kids about banned books but feel a lit­tle under resources, lis­ten to “Read the Room,” a pod­cast episode from On the Media. The pod­cast episode address­es cen­sor­ship, what it means to ban a book, and who gets to decide what our kids learn. Fea­tured on the episode is a stu­dent who brought his school board all the way to the Supreme Court in the ’80s.

In the U.S., there has been a resur­gence of par­ents not only chal­leng­ing and ban­ning books, but demand­ing books be pulled from syl­labi. It hap­pened to me. When I taught in a Catholic high school a decade ago, the prin­ci­pal pulled The Handmaid’s Tale off my syl­labus despite how deeply stu­dents engaged with it year in and year out. As par­ents and edu­ca­tors, it is an impor­tant moment to think about truth, cen­sor­ship, and free­dom of speech. It is an impor­tant moment to pull banned books off the shelf to read and rec­og­nize their pow­er to bring peace into our homes, class­rooms, and society.

Click here for Amer­i­can Library Association’s list of banned and chal­lenged books.

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