As children, we all had stories that we loved. Some of us would spend the whole school day waiting for that last bell to ring to find out if Harry Potter would win against Voldemort. Consuming pages and pages until we got our hands on the next book. Others favored books like The Hunger Games and Twilight, intrigued by the danger and romance. But for some districts, these books and many more have been pulled, leaving empty spaces on shelves.
The harsh reality of book banning
So many of the books taught in the educational system highlight the voices of white men, leaving diverse stories written by women, people of color, and the members of the LGBTQ+ community to the library shelves. But they only sit on the shelves for a limited amount of time before they’re challenged. In 2019, women wrote 8 out of 10 of the top challenged books, leaving one written by a non-binary person and another written by a man. Then in 2018, people of color wrote 3 out of 11 of the top challenged books. And when combining those two lists, fourteen out of twenty-one books were banned for including some LGBTQ+ content.
Book banning in America is a real, modern-day issue. Many people, to this day, are unaware of how many books have been prohibited in different districts. Although this issue is not as serious as a nation banning books, it directly infringes on people’s first amendment rights.
Many people imagine roaring fires and shouting from angry mobs when they think of book banning. However, we need to modernize our view of this term. Instead, we should be thinking of angry parents calling for the district to remove books that represent the LGBT+ community. School patrons using their influence to revoke literature that highlight the discrimination of people of color. Even some political or religious groups demand the removal of “inappropriate” books.
American Library Association’s Graph of Who Initiates Challenges
The censorship process
However, a process is in place to ban a book. Before banning even happens, a book needs to be challenged first. The American Library Association (ALA), an organization that helps fight against book bannings, explains that “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.”
There is good news, though. ALA goes on to say many challenges are unsuccessful because of librarians, teachers, parents, and other citizens fighting against censorship.
Sadly, books do get banned and challenged, causing ALA to create a list for the top challenged books each year. Just in 2019, 8 of the 10 books banned were about LGBTQ+ issues. The number one book was titled George, a children’s book about a transgender girl coming to terms with herself. You may be asking yourself ‘what is so bad about that?’ According to ALA’s website, they claim a big reason people are upset is “because schools and libraries should not ‘put books in a child’s hand that require discussion.’” The number one banned book was banned because parents don’t want to have discussions with their kids?
American Library Association’s Word Cloud of Reasons for Book Challenges
Importance of diverse stories
During my previous semester of college, I took a Young Adult Literature (YAL) course. One of the first things we learned was most YAL authors don’t assume their readers cannot handle serious topics. Instead, they take their topic and mold it into a kid-friendly manner to give them a way to process their environment. These authors intentionally try to challenge their readers and create discussions so they can further understand the world and themselves. By taking these “challenging” books off the shelves, people are limiting these young reader’s learning.
Specifically, with what is happening right now, we need books to educate children on racism and inequality. However, the anger and frustration from parents seem endless as books that bring to light the harsh truth of police brutality in the Black community are removed from shelves. Despite the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black lives destroyed by the police, people are still trying to hide their children from the reality of the world.
In 2018, the fourth most banned book was The Hate U Give. This was a story about a young black girl protesting police brutality after the police shot her childhood best friend. Although this is a fiction story, it holds a mirror up to society to show the treatment of Black people. Yet it gets banned from schools for being “anti-cop.”
By preventing students from reading diverse stories with serious topics, students are being taught there are only specific stories that are worth being told. Not only do those stories warp the view of the world, but there are also serious repercussions.
The danger of a single story
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk titled “The danger of a single story” explains the reality of producing stories that tell a specific narrative. Growing up in Nigeria, she read British and American children’s books that influenced her own writing as a child. She created stories with blue-eyed white people who played in the snow despite living in sunny Nigeria. It wasn’t until she came in contact with African writers that she started to write from her own perspective. Nevertheless, the idea of a single story still followed her later in life.
She explains that America frequently falls into the trend of placing a single story on different cultures. When she came to America as a college student her American roommate was confused by how well she spoke English, despite English being the official language in Nigeria, and believed Adichie wouldn’t know how to use a stove.
But Adichie later confesses she too fell victim to this single-story when she went to Guadalajara, Mexico. She relays how she was surprised by the happiness and success of the locals since America taught her Mexicans were a suffering people.
Power controls stories. In her speech, she explains,“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… it robs people of dignity… It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
By taking away stories that include multiple perspectives and diversity from the schools and libraries, we erase conversations and representation, and instead, contributing to the idea that people of color and the LGBTQ+ community do not write stories worth reading. We are fostering ignorance instead of understanding.
Banned book week
This issue has grown to where ALA holds banned book week to celebrate freedom of speech and bring attention to the current book banning crisis. The community of literature lovers, including booksellers, librarians, publishers, teachers, journalists, and readers gathers to discuss ideas. But it’s not all a celebration as the week brings attention to the harms of censorship, forcing people to recognize that book banning is not a thing of the past.
According to ALA, the origin of this event started in the 1980s as the disdain for “unfavorable” books grew. The idea was initiated after a successful showcase of banned books at Anaheim California’s 1982 American Booksellers Association BookExpo America trade show. Everything finally came together to form the first Banned Books Week. It was a success as read-outs were held in stores and window displays featured previously banned books. It even gained coverage by PBS and the New York Times, allowing the conversation about censorship to grow.
How to fight it
However, it’s not all grim; there are things we can all do to help fight against censorship. The ALA website has a place where you can report challenged materials. It also provides information on how to request reconsideration formally and even how to conduct a challenge hearing if it makes it to the level of appeals.
But for those of us that aren’t coming into contact with a lot of challenged books, the website provides talking points to start conversations with librarians. It gives pointers on how to address the issue, including dialogue starters, and provides resources to further inform people about the importance of fighting against censorship.
We need to work together to bring attention to book banning and its threat to our first amendment rights. After all, who would you be without the stories that shaped you as a child? If we want to raise children to be more aware of the injustice in the world, we need them to experience books that break away from the single-story narrative.