“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” — Oscar Wilde.  

As schools are reopening across the United States, many students are able to reflect on the year passed and look forward to the year ahead. However, the last school year has brought with it many changes to education as a whole. A noticeable trend has swept across the nation, punishing students, teachers, and all others in education: increased book banning. 

By definition, book bannings are instances in which certain pieces of media are removed from classrooms, libraries, and other locations wherein people are able to access these pieces of media. Predominantly, they are used to remove pieces of literature. My family is full of educators, and recently, both of my parents have had to go through their classroom libraries to determine which books are in line with new guidelines of appropriate literature, stemming from the Florida legislature. Like many other educators, their libraries were shut down. Some libraries are staying this way, devoid of books at all, in protest of the legislation. Some shelves are empty, not because of attempts to protest the guidelines, but simply because the guidelines were vague, and the county decided that they could not make a concrete judgment. 

Banning books is not a new concept. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned under the racist legislation of the Confederacy. The Comstock Act banned literature by Oscar Wilde and the Canterbury Tales. Hamlet has been banned across the world for “sex, violence, obscene language, and references to the occult.” Hundreds of books have been banned in history, and it is only getting worse.

Often, reasons of “violence, sex, and profanity” are cited to ban books. Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Slaughterhouse V are all historic examples of banned books. The Picture of Dorian Gray, wherein Oscar Wilde penned the above quote, was banned because of sexual content. Rather, it was banned in the United States and many parts of Europe because it discusses homosexuality. These types of bans are becoming more prevalent once again. Works about, by, and for LGBTQIA+ individuals are being banned. Works about, by, and for BIPOC individuals are being banned. 

Susan L Webb, writing with the First Amendment Encyclopedia defines book bannings as such: “Book banning, a form of censorship, occurs when private individuals, government officials, or organizations remove books from libraries, school reading lists, or bookstore shelves because they object to their content, ideas, or themes.”

Currently, the states leading the charge to ban and censor these works include Texas, “with 438 bans,” Florida, with “357 bans,” and Missouri, with “315 bans.” Most of these bans impact books written about marginalized individuals.

Within Texas, DWFChild reports the top thirteen books banned in Texas Schools. Ten of them focus on the experiences of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Some, like Out of Darkness, focus on the lives of BIPOC individuals, specifically a young Mexican girl and a black boy. Others, like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl are banned “for vulgarity, offensive language, and sexually explicit content.” Lawn Boy and Flamer both cover intersectionality between the LGBTQIA+ community and BIPOC individuals. Lawn Boy focuses on “a young Mexican American man,” and includes “a sexual encounter” between two boys. Flamer directly handles the intersectionality between race and sexual orientation with a mixed-race, fourteen year old boy of Filipino and Caucasian descent, who is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. His struggles mirror the experiences of the author, Mike Curato.

Florida’s list of banned books offers similar stories. The children’s book And Tango Makes Three, was banned for having a sexual innuendo. The book does not include one. Instead, it is the story of two male penguins raising a chick. There is nothing sexual in the book, yet board members and teachers in the district where it was banned consider it to be pornographic. One board member states: “The fascination is still on that it’s two male penguins raising a chick, so, I’ll be voting to remove the book from our libraries.” David Williams was one of the members on the board that deemed this book, along with other books that have themes of acceptance towards LGBTQIA+ individuals, unacceptable in public schools in Escambia County.

Many of the banned books with LGBTQIA+ themes are being banned under claims of pornographic material. PEN America refutes this claim, stating that “no one is advocating for pornography in schools. Florida laws signed by DeSantis, however, are so broad that they could sweep up a wide swath of books, including classics like Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird.” 

Other books that have been banned in Florida include “biographies of Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente” in Duval County. These books were banned for discussing topics related to Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT and CRT-related topics have been banned in public, K-12 schools in Florida. CRT is, according to EdWeek, “is an academic concept” that examines the concept of race as a social construct, and that it “is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. New legislation, signed by Ron DeSantis, has banned Diversity, Education, and Education (DEI) in public schools. This framework is used, predominantly, in graduate level studies—and certainly not in K-12 classrooms. 

Missouri’s book bannings follow a similar path, according to PEN America. The books banned in Missouri are censored due to a state bill that determines whether or not materials are “harmful to minors.” These books include examples like those mentioned previously, in addition to Shakespeare and Maus.

Marginalized communities are being further marginalized by these bans. Claims of pornography, leveled against works that detail the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals are directly harmful to community members. By considering any non-heterosexual character to be sexually explicit, the people in positions of power who act to ban these books are explicitly targeting non-heterosexual individuals. When BIPOC authors and characters, just existing, are deemed to be an extension of CRT, the people in positions of power are explicitly targeting BIPOC individuals.

The control of what books are able to be read is a direct control of what voices are allowed to be shared. By actively banning these books, marginalized authors’ voices are being banned. The experiences of marginalized individuals are deemed inappropriate for schools, stating that they are too adult or that they are not accurate representations of America. The politicians that seek to ban these books seek to ban the voices that create them. 

These problems tie directly into policies such as Florida’s recent ban of DEI and other conservative policies that have cropped up around the country. These issues do not just apply in schools, but they start in them. By removing diverse voices from classrooms, these voices continue to be quieted and closed away. 

So, how can you help? For starters, encouraging others to vote (and voting yourself) for school board candidates who won’t ban books that students should be allowed to read is one of the most immediate and important actions available. How about on a larger level? Well, voting for people at all levels of government has an impact on who has the power to censor education. If you can’t vote, find ways like volunteering or canvassing to help out a campaign. Second, as students, we have incredible power —keep speaking up to your school board. We specialize in grassroots lobbying at the level of school districts, and we are here to help —contact us if you want help strategizing against book bans in your school district. And last, read banned books. Encourage your friends to read banned books, and even look into banned book clubs outside of school. You still have the power to access and read these books, so go read them.

We cannot have diverse voices silenced in classrooms. We cannot have diverse voices silenced at all. We cannot ban books without essentially banning the people who created them. 

——

Want to speak out against book bans? So do we, and we’re here to help. Join our upcoming workshop on how to prepare a quality public comment for a school board meeting or legislative hearing on June 29, 2023, at 7:00 PM EST.

Sources: