Banning Books

We love writ­ing this col­umn and have been doing it since 2015. Typ­i­cal­ly we decide on a top­ic or sub­ject and write about books we love with­in that range. This month we had planned to write about sev­er­al books we love that have been banned, but we real­ized that along with giv­ing you a list of banned books we real­ly want­ed to write about the cur­rent tsuna­mi of book ban­ning in our country.

All of us who love books have heard about book ban­ning. We might have seen pic­tures of school libraries with emp­ty shelves whose books are being “eval­u­at­ed.” Per­haps we’ve dealt with ban­ning in our local schools and libraries.

On the PEN Amer­i­ca web­site we find this infor­ma­tion about book ban­ning: “Hyper­bol­ic and mis­lead­ing rhetoric about ‘porn in schools’ and ‘sex­u­al­ly explic­it,’ ‘harm­ful,’ and ‘age inap­pro­pri­ate’ mate­ri­als led to the removal of thou­sands of books cov­er­ing a range of top­ics and themes for young audiences.

Over­whelm­ing­ly, book bans tar­get books on race or racism or fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters of col­or, as well as books with LGBTQ+ char­ac­ters. And this year, banned books also include books on phys­i­cal abuse, health and well-being, and themes of grief and death. Notably, most instances of book bans affect young adult books, mid­dle grade books, chap­ter books, or pic­ture books — books specif­i­cal­ly writ­ten and select­ed for younger audi­ences.” Accord­ing to PEN Amer­i­ca, in the 2021 – 22 school year 327 indi­vid­ual pic­ture book titles were banned in the Unit­ed States.

The PEN web­site also tells us: “In a May 2023 Ipsos/NPR poll, 65 per­cent of Amer­i­cans stat­ed that they oppose book bans by school boards, and 69 per­cent oppose book bans by state lawmakers.”

But book ban­ning con­tin­ues, and it affects us all — writ­ers, who see their books removed from libraries, or more insid­i­ous­ly, just not ordered for libraries, teach­ers and librar­i­ans who can face wrath­ful par­ents who say they are wor­ried about what their chil­dren may be reading.

Queer Ducks

New York Times best-sell­ing author Eliot Schre­fer expe­ri­enced a firestorm of neg­a­tive emails, tweets, and Face­book posts regard­ing his book Queer Ducks. The book, pub­lished in 2022, is illus­trat­ed non-fic­tion about homo­sex­u­al behav­ior in the ani­mal king­dom. It received five starred reviews, but Schre­fer says that it was “under­ordered” by schools and libraries. Then it was named a Printz Hon­or book. Schre­fer was inter­viewed on NPR, appeared on The Dai­ly Show. Peo­ple began to notice his book, peo­ple who don’t want kids to read about any kind of homo­sex­u­al behav­ior. He was the tar­get of many crit­i­cal, de-human­iz­ing com­ments and final­ly had to stop read­ing his own emails.

He says of the cur­rent wave of book chal­leng­ing, “This is dif­fer­ent from how ban­ning worked before [when one par­ent might object to a par­tic­u­lar book] …. Books are place hold­ers for cul­tur­al argu­ments. [Some par­ents], foot sol­diers real­ly do believe in what they are doing but the high­er ups believe cre­at­ing an ene­my is the best way to get votes.”

Eliot Schrefer’s expe­ri­ence reminds us of the var­i­ous ways that we all can be affect­ed by book chal­lenges and book ban­ning. First there is soft cen­sor­ship. His book was just not ordered, even though it received five starred reviews. Under-order­ing means books sit in ware­hous­es and pub­lish­ers are required to pay tax­es on those books. When pub­lish­ers lose mon­ey on a book they are less like­ly to pub­lish anoth­er book on that top­ic. So writ­ers are lim­it­ed in what they can write. Read­ers are lim­it­ed in what they can read.

For sta­tis­tics about who’s doing the chal­leng­ing and the types of books being chal­lenged, please read “Objec­tion to sex­u­al, LGBTQ con­tent pro­pels spike in book chal­lenges,” by Han­nah Natan­son for The Wash­ing­ton Post, updat­ed 9 June 2023. (Our thanks to Tass­lyn Mag­nus­son for her research in find­ing this article.)

Actu­al removal of books from libraries went up 33% from 2022 to 2023, accord­ing to PEN. What hap­pens to kids’ who need to see them­selves in books when they do not find those books? What hap­pens to all our kids when they can­not read the real truths about our his­to­ry? When they can­not read Before She Was Har­ri­et by Lesa Cline-Ran­some or Unspeak­able: The Tul­sa Race Mas­sacre by Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford or Sep­a­rate Is Nev­er Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Deseg­re­ga­tion by Dun­can Tonatiuh?

Chil­dren are denied access to our his­to­ry and they are also denied sto­ries. In J.J. Aus­tri­an’s book Worm Loves Worm two worms (who are, after all, her­maph­ro­dit­ic) want to get mar­ried. Yet the book has been banned, and one book ban­ner has called Aus­tri­an a mind rapist. When J.J. reads the book to school chil­dren and asks them what the sto­ry is about, they respond that it’s about bul­ly­ing, about the oth­er insects try­ing to boss the worms around. Elana K. Arnold’s book What Riley Wore has also been banned. “It’s just a book about dress­ing for the occa­sion and wear­ing what feels good,” Arnold says, “and has no pro­nouns at all attrib­uted to Riley.”

Red, A Cray­on’s Sto­ry by Michael Hall is a sto­ry about a blue cray­on mis­la­beled as red who dis­cov­ers he is real­ly blue — and very good at being blue. Hall says the book is about the “unbri­dled joy of find­ing a place for one’s true self in the world.” He won­ders if the peo­ple keep­ing Red out of schools would feel dif­fer­ent­ly if they could see the mes­sages of grat­i­tude he’s received from par­ents and from oth­ers who strug­gle to be their true selves regard­less of labels.

Michael Hall shares his expe­ri­ence with Red: A Cray­on’s Sto­ry:

In Red, a sto­ry about a blue cray­on mis­tak­en­ly labeled as red, I want­ed to con­vey the deep despair an indi­vid­ual must endure under the relent­less pres­sure to con­form to their community’s expec­ta­tions and the unbri­dled joy of find­ing a place for one’s true self in the world. Ear­ly on, it was clear­ly going to be a sto­ry about gen­der non­con­for­mi­ty, but I want­ed it to be rel­e­vant to many dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple feel mis­la­beled. Even­tu­al­ly, I saw my own strug­gle with dyslex­ia in Red’s predicament.

A few years ago, a kinder­garten school teacher in Cal­i­for­nia read the book to her class at the request of her trans­gen­der stu­dent. This caught the atten­tion of book ban­ners who chal­lenged it. Ide­al­ly, school is a place for chil­dren to meet peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from them­selves. It’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn and prac­tice empa­thy. But hid­ing the very idea of gen­der non­con­for­mi­ty fos­ters big­otry and stymies stu­dents’ emo­tion­al development. 

In the book, Red’s teacher, par­ents, and friends believe they are look­ing out for Red’s best inter­ests as they try to help him do a bet­ter job of being red. Sim­i­lar­ly, I like to think that most of those try­ing to keep Red out of schools do so with­out mal­ice. And I won­der if they would be swayed if they were to see some of the notes I’ve received from par­ents, both lib­er­al and con­ser­v­a­tive, who had the courage to help their trans chil­dren express their true selves; tran­si­tion­ing adults who use Red to explain what they’re going through; and trans grown-ups, who wish the book was avail­able when they were younger.

At the end of the sto­ry, as Red dis­cov­ers that he’s not red after all, all the oth­er crayons cel­e­brate. This might be pollyan­naish, but I con­tin­ue to believe that the virtues of accep­tance and inclu­sion will tri­umph in the end.

How do these authors respond to being banned? J.J. Aus­tri­an believes that books need to give kids hope in the world. Elana K. Arnold in a pub­lished arti­cle said that hav­ing books banned reminds her that “it’s my great priv­i­lege to have a voice, and they spur me to be even loud­er.” Michael Hall believes that “accep­tance and inclu­sion will tri­umph in the end.”

In an inter­view, Jason Reynolds, some of whose books have suf­fered ban­ning, asked the core ques­tion, “What are they [book ban­ners] afraid of?”

Book ban­ners are afraid of the pow­er of words and of sto­ries and of books. The pow­er of the imag­i­na­tion and of knowl­edge. The pow­er of see­ing our­selves por­trayed in sto­ries and books, of know­ing that we, too, are part of the end­less and won­drous ways of being in the world.

We also believe some in the book ban­ning camp have a cor­ro­sive goal of weak­en­ing our faith in our pub­lic schools, weak­en­ing our con­fi­dence in the pro­fes­sion­al librar­i­ans and teach­ers who choose the books in our libraries and class­rooms. When peo­ple lose faith in their insti­tu­tions they are more vul­ner­a­ble to lies and propaganda.

We want to share with you more titles of fre­quent­ly banned books. You may see some of your favorites on the list. We always do.

What can we do to resist this wave of book-banning?

  • We can vote. We can elect to our school­boards and our state leg­is­la­tures can­di­dates who believe that teach­ers and librar­i­ans have the knowl­edge and com­mit­ment to make good choic­es about the books in their class­rooms and libraries.
  • We can vote with our pock­et­books and buy banned books and make them avail­able to read­ers – have them in our homes, give them to schools and libraries, leave them in lit­tle free libraries
  • We can attend school board meet­ings and speak up about the books we love, the books we want to be avail­able to all read­ers, even before there is an inci­dent regard­ing our schools’ collections.
  • We can write let­ters to the edi­tors of our local and state news­pa­pers about the impor­tance of diver­si­ty in literature.
  • We can sup­port writ­ers whose books are banned, whether online or direct­ly if we have the chance. In the midst of an avalanche of attacks on Face­book, Eliot Schre­fer espe­cial­ly remem­bers the sup­port­er who fought back by writ­ing, “My son read this book and now he’s a duck.”

When Eliot Schre­fer was asked if the social media attacks against him for Queer Ducks had made him con­sid­er silenc­ing him­self, he replied “It made me want to raise my voice louder.”

All of us who love books and sto­ries can raise our voic­es loud­er, too. Let’s all find the work we can do. We are stronger together.

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Liza Ketchum
Liza Ketchum
5 months ago

What a fab­u­lous essay! Thanks for both the fine argu­ment AND for the book titles that I’ve missed along the way. As some­one who has a novel(Twelve Days in August) on the infa­mous Texas list of “dan­ger­ous books”, I am pas­sion­ate about this issue – not because of my book, but because of read­ers who might find them­selves in the sto­ry, if they only had the chance to read it.

Phyllis and Jackie
Phyllis and Jackie
Reply to  Liza Ketchum
5 months ago

That’s the insid­i­ous part of these bans, that peo­ple aren’t being allowed to see them­selves in books and as impor­tant mem­bers of our community.

David LaRochelle
5 months ago

Thank you! And I just found some new books to request at the library.

Marsha Wilson Chall
Marsha Wilson Chall
5 months ago

Thank you for this impor­tant essay! Its sig­nif­i­cance is loud and clear!