Book bans don’t protect children, they limit learningEducation
Book bans have been a prominent topic in the news recently, given the rapid rise in requests from parents to remove books they find objectionable from libraries and curricula. With continuing efforts to increase parental control of books and lesson plans, it is important to understand what book bans are, as well as their implications. Book bans make it more difficult for students to access certain books, either by removing them from the library or from the curriculum. Book bans involve overriding choices made by teachers or librarians about books.
An American Library Association (ALA) survey found that 70% of parents oppose banning books in public libraries, with most parents having a high level of confidence in librarians to make decisions about age-appropriate book selections. Nonetheless, there has been an uptick in restrictions on books in school libraries, with the ALA noting more than 1,200 requests to restrict book access in 2022. This is the highest number of requests ever analyzed by the ALA. A small number of parents have propagated the book bans. A Washington Post analysis found that the majority of 1,000+ book bans were reported by just eleven people.
Recent efforts to censor conversations about gender, sexuality, and race have influenced the book ban movement. Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” Bill, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, restricts teachings about gender and sexual orientation in schools. Critical Race Theory has also drawn national attention recently, with some state-wide legislation banning its use in schools or imposing regulations about race-based topics.
So, what does this mean for book bans? In an analysis of books banned during the first half of the 2022-2023 academic year, about 26% of banned books address LGBTQ+ topics, and 30% discuss race or racism. Similar patterns are seen when analyzing the authors of banned books–many of the banned books have been written by authors of color or LGBTQ+ authors. The fact that these bans disproportionately impact books written by or involving people of color and LGBTQ+ people indicates a targeted attempt to silence certain voices rather than to protect children.
The most banned book of 2022 was Gender Queer, an autobiographical graphic novel by Maia Kobabe that discusses growing up through a gendered lens. Kobabe discusses a variety of topics – from discomfort with gender identity to romantic crushes to music. Kobabe reinforces the importance of books like Gender Queer being accessible, explaining in an interview that for queer, trans, and nonbinary youth, media can be one of the best ways to “look up information on their identity or find answers to questions they might be having or find role models and adults they can look up to.”
While there have been no federal book bans accompanying these recent restrictions, there are efforts to bring these issues to the national level. The “Parents Bill of Rights” (H.R.5), which passed in the House of Representatives, enumerates rights for parents such as “a list of the books and other reading materials available in the library of their child’s school” along with the right to “inspect such books or reading materials.”
Efforts to counter book banning legislation have occurred at both the state and federal levels. Attempts to mitigate the potential harm implied by H.R.5 included an amendment offered by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) to prevent the bill from being used to enable book bans, which failed. State-wide initiatives have also emerged to protect books in schools, including legislation signed by Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker to outlaw book bans.
Groups that claim to champion “parental rights,” such as Moms for Liberty, have stood at the forefront of these movements, actively supporting book bans and other legislation. Moms for Liberty is working to eliminate conversations about gender identity and Critical Race Theory from classrooms, including in books, and their advocacy is gaining traction in school board races across the country.
As some parents work toward expanding their own power, where does this leave children? Children have been lost in the conversation that directly relates to their education. Books from a variety of viewpoints can be incredible tools to help children learn, independently or in a classroom, and limiting these discussions only hinders the nuanced discussions that inspire growth. Banning Shakespeare and other classic literature based on a few excerpts doesn’t protect children, it limits their learning. Banning books about LGBTQ+ and racial-equity topics doesn’t stop children from being curious about different topics, it merely blocks an important medium through which they can learn.