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Book bans: Fighting for the minds of the children

By Lisa Brody

When I was in junior high, Judy Blume’s young adult book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, seemed to speak directly to me. I felt seen. In the novel, an 11-year-old girl searched for the meaning of religion in life while dealing with common pre-teen female issues like confronting puberty, buying her first bra, having her first period, and coping with her first romantic and sexual attraction.

Judy Blume wrote as if she was an 11-year-old, and while my life didn’t precisely mirror Margaret’s, having access to the book, and being able to read it and discuss it with my mother and girlfriends was a freedom I did not know was noteworthy, as it turns out the book has been frequently challenged since its publication in 1970 for its frank discussion of sexual and religious topics. As a matter of fact, according to the American Library Association (ALA), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, is one of the most frequently challenged books of the 21st century, along with 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher In the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, On the Origin of Species, The Lord of the Rings, Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies, and Slaughterhouse-Five.

A disparate yet widely well-respected selection of literature, what do all of these titles have in common? According to R. Wolf Baldassaro of Banned Books Awareness, “The reasons behind these challenges may seem innocent and well-intentioned, but the truth is that at the center of the issue it isn’t these topics themselves that worry parents, it’s that we don’t want to acknowledge them for one very selfish reason: they make us uncomfortable. We simply don’t want to talk about it – especially with our children. Therefore, we hide in a bubble and force our children to search for the answers on their own and then get angry when they find them.

“‘But if they read about it, they’ll know more than we do and start to question the world around them.’ That’s the rationale. So, logically it means that the books must be destroyed lest the truth get out that their world is changing, sociologically and physically,” Baldassaro asserts.

Today’s list of 10 most challenged books of 2021, according to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, which tracked 729 challenges of 1,597 books to library, school and university materials and services in 2021, place a spotlight on two controversial subjects today: gender, sex and books which deal with race. The most challenged books in 2021 were Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe; Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison; Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez; The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson; and Beyond Magenta by Susan Kulin.

The reason many of these books were banned and challenged are for LGBTQIA+ content, they are considered sexually explicit or for sexual references, profanity, derogatory terms and depictions of abuse.

“It’s important to look at the books being attacked most – books about LGBTQIA+ people, race, people being oppressed,” said Nora Pelizzari, director of communications, National Coalition Against Censorship. “The political climate is causing this ‘fear of other.’ It’s a symptom of the larger culture war the country is experiencing.”

Pelizzari said attempts to ban and remove books that some people “do not like are nothing new. The National Council Against Censorship has been around for 50 years and seen challenges for all 50 years.”

That said, Pelizzari said, “What we’re seeing is unprecedented. It’s a coordinated attack against libraries and public schools. We’re a non-partisan organization so it takes a lot for us to say something is politically motivated. We’re very balanced because we’ve seen attempts at banning from both sides. She said, however, book challenges and attacks from the left “are very minimal compared to what we are seeing on the right.” She noted parents on the left have tended to be very “politically correct,” looking to challenge and ban books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird because of some of its authentic-to-its-time language, “and because the depictions of race and racism and racist language are out of date.”

She said most of these “politically correct” challenges tend to be hyperlocal. “They tend to be about a book, or a syllabus. What we’re seeing on the right dwarfs that many times over. What we’re seeing on the right is a coordinated attack on whole lists of books – not just on school curricula but school libraries.”

PEN America Director of Free Expression and Education Jonathan Friedman concurred. “We have called the national movement the ‘Ed Scare’ – the effort to institute fear around schools. First it was around critical race theory, then around gender, then it focused around materials in schools. Parents who want to be activists are finding this is a way to be proactive. It’s supposed to be very local and they’re supposed to go directly to schools or to their local school boards. But often, it’s happening through back channels, in some cases through lists of emails and the spread of social media – ‘Did you hear about this book?’ It’s all gossip and rumor mills. It’s not about people actually reading the books.”

There were 377 challenges to library, school and university materials in 2019, of 566 books, according to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, the first recent year in which there was a significant uptick in appeals for censorship and book banning. The number one challenged book was George, by Alex Gino, due to LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character. The second most challenged book was Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, along with A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg. Also on the list is Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. Each of these books were challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints.

Also on 2019’s list was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Drama,written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, along with And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson which is based on the true story of two male penguins who appear to love each other and nurture an egg.

The ALA tracked 156 challenges in 2020, with 273 books targeted, with George by Alex Gino at number one, followed by Stamped: Racism, AntiRacism and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds the second most challenged book nationwide, followed by All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, for “profanity, drug use and alcoholism and promotion of anti-police views.” Biased by Laurie Halse Anderson, was banned and challenged because it was claimed to be “biased against male students, and its inclusion of rape and profanity.” Also on the 2020 list is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Justice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazard; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Book challenges and book bans have existed since Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1436, beginning the printing revolution and opening up literacy to a wider latitude of citizens than just those in the church. There were likely book bans before this time, Polly Boruff-Jones, dean of university libraries at Oakland University, said that when the printing press developed and more people had access to the written word as well as greater literacy, “The Church had less of an interpretation of their control and they sought to create bans. There was an attempt to maintain control of religious doctrine. The time of the Reformation was a time of (Martin) Luther publishing documents challenging Catholic doctrines – challenging the status quo. Whatever that is, is often what is being challenged.”

In the early American colonies, one of the first books banned was New English Canaan, which Boruff-Jones said attacked Puritanism and Puritan customs. Later, the Confederacy banned Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“There’s never been a time when there wasn’t censorship,” asserted Dr. Lisa Maruca, associate professor of English at Wayne State University, whose area of expertise is in the history of books, including censorship. She explained that 18th century novels written in England – which today are very popular for film and television adaptations, especially by Jane Austen – “were considered enticing and might contain romantic plots, or where the hero or heroine could overthrow social norms.”

Maruca said there were concerns they would influence young minds – especially women – because of what they considered salacious content, that a young woman might consider her suitor rather than her parents’ choosing for her.

“Whenever I teach this it reminds me of panics around video games or the internet,” she said. “This kind of concern has been going on 300 years, at least.

“It’s really about control. Censorship is about who has access to young minds, who is allowed the access to media,” Maruca pointed out. “Since the beginning of the printing press, that has been an urgent question.”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, agrees.

“What we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented campaign to ban books from school libraries and public libraries – to remove the voices of marginalized communities, which have found a place in society and on the shelves across the country in libraries,” Caldwell-Stone said, noting the most challenged books over the last few years include “Lived experiences of LGBTQIA+ teens, Black, Indigenous and people of color and their lived experiences, or by Black authors. We’re finding the effort to stigmatize these works as ‘critical race theory’ an unfounded theory – it’s a scare tactic.

“But it’s motivating people to go to their school boards with these banned books lists and demand they be removed. For children’s books, simply because they’re written by a Black author, they’re about Black lives or the impact of police violence on Black lives, they don’t want them to exist or be available,” Caldwell-Stone pointed out of national online groups spearheaded by Moms For Liberty and No Left Turn in Education.

The Moms for Liberty Oakland County Twitter page states “We welcome all who have a desire to stand up for parental rights at all levels of government. Dedicated to fighting 4 our kids, educating & empowering parents.” The group, launched in Florida to support “parental rights” in public schools, has chapters that have spread across the country, and now counts eight chapters in Michigan. Among their issues in 2021 was forced masking of students and teaching of critical race theory.

The mission of No Left Turn in Education states “Parents from all walks of life are waking up to this troubling reality, but until now did not know where to turn to and what to do. They are afraid to speak up and push back. In No Left Turn in Education we believe in restoring the intended relationship between parents and the public education.”

Maruca of Wayne State University said that throughout the history of education, what has been chosen for children to study has always been chosen under the auspice of politics, “Whether you’re talking about the 18th century in England or 19th century in America, there was always a social rationale or moralistic purpose.”

She said that even the reason Shakespeare, the great bard, was elevated, had another purpose.

“We think of Shakespeare as great literature, but he was not taught in schools until the late 18th century/early 19th century in England, to promote Englishness in England, as they spread their colonial mission, this ‘pure English mission,’ and then the Americans imported this,” Maruca said.

The popular use of the McGuffey readers in mid-19th century and early 20th century American schools, a collection of British stories and poems, “made sure everyone would have the same accent and promoted whiteness at a time when the U.S. was a nation of immigrants and African Americans were starting to have access to education after emancipation,” Maruca said. “These popular textbooks were representing literary heritage as very proper, white, British, monolithic language that is meant to be pronounced in a certain way, with an upper class, midwestern pronunciation – that everyone must sound the same and there is only one way to speak, and that all immigrants had to assimilate.”

Pelizzari and Friedman both said that while there have been significant increases over the last three to four years in efforts to challenge books, “This crisis began at the beginning of this school year,” Pelizzari said. “In recent months it grew from book challenges in schools and libraries to legislative attempts to determine what teachers can teach and what materials libraries can stock.”

“Starting in the late summer and fall, there were more bans on individual books that then spread to lists of books that parents’ challenged to remove from school libraries through school boards, lists that spread around social media,” Friedman of PEN America said.

He said beginning in September, there have been numerous reports of parents “going and reading excerpts of books and attempting to shame school board members – elected officials who are not necessarily familiar with individual books. What do the typical school board members know about student constitutional rights?

“Some originally meant to appease parents by removing the books in question, and it spread, and then it became a national movement,” Friedman said.

Caldwell-Stone said there have always been parents with concerns, as there were about Judy Blume’s books during the 1970s and 1980s.

Boruff-Jones of Oakland University said there have been other cycles of book challenges. “In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a huge spike in book banning and challenges due to the Moral Majority, which led an intentional campaign to challenge books that challenged traditional America, and what that group considered the ‘American Morality.’ There was a big spike at that time. It was a little more thoughtful challenge at that time because the books were read and considered.”