“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe — although quite different in content, these three books have something in common. They’re all a part of the list of banned books for the 2021-2022 school year. A study by PEN America, an organization that unifies writers and allies alike to commemorate and protect creative expression, revealed that about 4 million students and “138 school districts in 32 states” have been affected by these bans. However, despite the efforts, the bans have not stopped students from reading these books. If anything, they have caused them to seek out these very books by creating a mystery around them which made them more appealing.
Oftentimes, we naturally gravitate towards the things we can’t have; whether it’s a physical object or just the mere curiosity of wanting to know more, we’re simply fascinated with the unobtainable. This also applies to the way we feel about banned books. For instance, Barnes & Noble stores have sections dedicated to the top banned books and the books most challenged in schools and libraries. But what is it about banned books that appeal to readers? Perhaps, reading banned books makes us feel rebellious, and the thought of doing something we are not supposed to feels exciting and bold. But banned books are much more than just “books we shouldn’t read.” In fact, they hold the key to how we see and understand ourselves. Their content contains subjects such as culture, identity, environment, relationships, and more.
Oftentimes, we naturally gravitate towards the things we can’t have; whether it’s a physical object or just the mere curiosity of wanting to know more, we’re simply fascinated with the unobtainable.
Banned books have been around since the 1630s as a type of censorship. Censorship is defined by the American Civil Liberty Union as: “the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others,” noting that “censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups.” The relationship between censorship and books falls under the concept of limitations, which is the limit of what can be said and how much is said. It’s a boundary that controls reading, but the catch is that this was never agreed on by readers.
Throughout time, books have been banned because of a variety of reasons. In the early colonial period, religious leaders would control the books read by the public to prevent the spread of certain beliefs. For instance, in the 19th century and during the Civil War, with slavery on the rise, any anti-slavery sentiments were not welcomed in the South, and many books on the topic were banned. It came to the point where legislation was put into place to block content like that. The Comstock Act 1873, “made it illegal to send ‘obscene, lewd or lascivious,’ ‘immoral,’ or ‘indecent’ publications through the mail.” In addition, any form of bartering, copying, or even owning the content in any form (books, pictures, etc) would be considered a misdemeanor.
Although such laws no longer exist in the United States, today, we face a modern version of the same phenomenon. These current approaches to censoring literature occur at our very own schools. PEN America defines a school book ban as the result of challenges that come from parents, school districts or government officials that lead to restricted availability of books to students, or the removal of books from the school curriculum.
The censorship of books has sparked discourse about why this barring is needed in the first place. Some may claim that since books are so influential in shaping students’ minds, the messages that books contain may be of concern. Others may argue that parents and politicians use this censorship as a tool to bolster their own beliefs while hindering the perspectives of others that don’t match their own. Though different arguments and concerns exist, one thing is clear: the words of an author hold power, and they are not meant to be taken lightly.
Though different arguments and concerns exist, one thing is clear: the words of an author hold power, and they are not meant to be taken lightly.
So, what type of content is typically in a banned book? Data from PEN America Index of School Book Bans July 1, 2021 – June 30, 2022, reveal that the type of content banned includes “41% LGBTQ+ themes, protagonists or prominent secondary characters, 40% protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color, 22% sexual content, 21% titles with issues of race and racism, 10% titles with themes of rights and activism, 9% biography, autobiography, or memoir, and 4% stories with religious minorities.” This data suggests that books with content related to the LGBTQ+ community and communities of color are at a much higher risk of being banned. This illustrates a bigger problem at hand, and its implications fall upon those who make and approve these bans.
The people who administer these bans hold authoritative power; when the community and district officials make a list of the books that are deemed inappropriate for the classroom, governmental officials are the ones that approve it. However, there is a conversation that needs to be had around the biases of these officials. In the United States, the discourse around the correlation between power and prejudice comes as no surprise, especially with how much influence they both have over our society. The longstanding history of institutionalized racism and homophobia plays a big role in how we see ourselves in society — and by extension, our books.
In the United States, the discourse around the correlation between power and prejudice comes as no surprise, especially with how much influence they both have over our society.
Our books — and our education system as a whole — fails to reflect the multiculturalism of our society. Without books that are reflective of our communities, we begin to see a deficit in how we choose to continue our learning and understanding of each other. Books are the key to shaping students’ identities and the way that they see the world. We’re living in a time where empathy is urgently needed, and the constant censorship of books is doing more harm than good. Although we will always have access to these books, the bans hinder our ability to access a school curriculum where we can garner the skills for a better and more inclusive future. In a nation where racism and homophobia are some of the largest unresolved issues of our time, literature is restricted from being able to reflect any of the progress our country has made.
So is there a way around this? Where do we even go from here? The first step is to keep on reading banned books. Continuing our fascination with them will give them the voice that they need. Individuals can also encourage educators in their local community to switch up their curriculum. Diversify Our Narrative, a Stanford University-led organization, has a list of demands for teachers to incorporate at least one book written by a person of color in every class. There is no harm in trying to resist the banning of literature, and it’s okay if our efforts don’t always work. The greatest changes take time, and literature is timeless.
The greatest changes take time, and literature is timeless.
Our society is complex and we’re living through challenging times. In a generation where we’re all turning to technology to cope, let’s take the opportunity to step back and reflect. Literature can be consumed in so many ways, and it’s important to take the time to look into banned books because censorship can only hide so much. These authors didn’t write their stories to be silenced – they wrote them knowing the risks, knowing the resistance they would face. But most importantly, they wrote them to be read, to be heard. Now that is a story worth reading.