In a world of online book shopping most of us rarely consider what we’re able to buy, or what books are available from the library. But there is nothing more important in the world of freedom of expression than access to the written word.
Literature can be an escape from reality. It can provide space to dream and to challenge and the best of literature can challenge our perceptions of the status quo. Of course there are bad books as much as there are good books, but each and every published work adds something to our collective understanding of the world around us. That’s why a democracy should cherish the written word and consider libraries as cathedrals of learning and opportunity. The banning of books is for the unenlightened and should be challenged wherever it happens.
And that’s why it is so shocking that 1,648 titles are banned across the United States at the moment, according to PEN America, in their recently updated list of banned books. Many of these books relate to sexuality and LGBTQ+ experiences, and some challenge historical realities, such as segregation and class, or race and history. With these books banned, not only are authors literally being cancelled but minority communities are prevented from seeing characters like themselves in the literature that they read.
The most commonly banned book in the USA at the moment is Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe. What does this say to young people who are questioning their own identity when books which explore the very things that they are currently experiencing are banned?
As a Jewish woman and an anti-racist activist I find the concept of banning books abhorrent. Only those political leaders who are scared of people can possibly think it’s acceptable to ban the written word and make reading an illicit or illegal activity.
I was lucky as a child. I had an enlightened mum who thought there was little else more important than me reading, although I did resent getting the books about my favourite toys rather than the actual toys (yes mum I am still upset I never had a My Little Pony!). But looking at the list of Banned Books PEN America has published I’m disconcerted to see so many of those books I loved as a child banned, including several by Judy Blume and The Handmaid’s Tale by Index patron Margaret Atwood.
Freedom to read is as crucial an element of freedom of expression as freedom to create.
Censorship doesn’t protect children and young people. Reading about gender and sexuality isn’t going to make them go and have sex, or change who they might later choose to have sex with. Just as reading about Afghanistan doesn’t make a child a victim of war or reading about slavery in the USA a slave. Instead reading about those issues can make a young person more compassionate, more understanding of others and more open to new ideas. It generates empathy and gives us all a more informed and confident community who understand pain and anguish as well as our collective history. That is the society I want to live in.
And in the spirit of Barack Obama, who just released his own summer reading list in support of anti-book banning efforts, might I recommend you check out some of those wonderful titles on the list. Together let’s fight book bans.
Just over a month after Banned Books Week 2022, the risk to literature has intensified. Depending on the outcome of the US midterms, moves from Republican lawmakers to silence certain books could take a firmer grip.
On library shelves in the USA, certain books have fallen prey to challenges and subsequent localised bannings. There’s a blank space where Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye used to sit in many Florida schools (and beyond), while Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay has been banned in a septuplet of states. The incredible Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, an interweaving of narratives that crosses generations and continents, has been carted away on the librarian’s trolley in areas of Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. A recent report from PEN America found there were over 2,500 book bans across 32 states between July 2021 and June 2022. And where America goes, the rest of the world often follows.
In the autumn issue of Index on Censorship, we explored book bannings in the USA and the growing movement to keep literature free.
George M Johnson, author of one of the most banned books in the USA, wrote about how being banned gave them a hunger to write more, to deal with the racism and sexual identity that they had no resources to tackle as a child. We spoke to Kings Books in Tacoma, Washington State, where a monthly banned books club sets free the literature which has been erased from the shelves of school libraries and classrooms.
“You end up talking about topics that don’t normally come up in conversation because banned books cover those controversial topics [including] the clichéd things you don’t talk about in public,” the club’s co-ordinator David Raff said.
This group puts freedom to read into practice, and it is not alone. There’s the protest against book censorship in classrooms, where students in Texas staged a read-in at the Capitol Rotunda, devouring books on a Republican lawmaker’s list of condemned titles. Students in Pennsylvania stood up against books being removed from their library. Parents in Texas and Florida organised protests. Against the rising tide of book bannings, even calls to burn books which echo the darkest moments in history, people are resisting.
The big question around these book bannings is: why? Why would parents or lawmakers seek to ban The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hate U Give, or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Even the stunning children’s picture book by Jessica Love, Julian is a Mermaid, does not escape the censor’s wrath in areas of Florida and Pennsylvania.
Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. As the latest American Library Association (ALA) report puts it, the challenges are often led by conservative groups to shut down materials which “address racism, gender and sexual identity”.
The most-banned books, compiled by PEN America, paint this picture clearly. George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue is banned in multiple areas of 13 states, including New York and Washington. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison racks up bans in 12 states. And Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir, is missing from shelves in multiple school districts in 15 states, landing the unenviable spot as most-banned book.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that allowed parents to search a list of books available in schools and to object, specifically referencing Lawn Boy as containing passages of “paedophilia”. Meanwhile Moms for Liberty was one of the groups that spearheaded the campaign for All Boys Aren’t Blue to be banned, tweeting: “They [school board members] want to rob children of their innocence.”
I spoke to Nick Higgins, the chief librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, where the Books Unbanned project supports young people across the USA facing book challenges or outright bans in their communities. Brooklyn might not be at the sharp end of book bannings, but they’ve extended their relatively censorship-free status to allow young people across the whole country to access their catalogue of half a million eBooks and audiobooks using a free library card – whether the books are banned or not. Higgins says the library wants everyone to have access to a well-maintained, diverse, broad spectrum of ideas.
“This is what it means to live in a pluralistic society,” he said. “You are encountered with ideas that you agree with, and ideas that you don’t agree with, and the diversity of a community is something that makes us richer, stronger, more empathetic to one another, and is really necessary for a healthy democratic society.”
The recent spate of book challenges and bans, he said, is a movement to silence particular voices and lock away those narratives.
“What that says to a young person […] trying to seek out voices that sound like their own, characters that speak to them – and they find adults in their communities taking those stories off the shelves and hiding them away – it says to that young person that they don’t belong in that community, they have no place in that community and their voice doesn’t matter,” he said.
And the library hasn’t stopped with the Books Unbanned project. There’s a virtual banned books club, most recently discussing Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe with teen librarian Jes G. Young adult interns also formed the Teen Intellectual Freedom Council, creating a network of young people. They meet remotely with a group of teens in Austin, Texas – the state that tops the list in number of bans and where in 2021 a bill passed prohibiting lessons where “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex”. One of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Matt Krause, followed up by demanding that libraries tell him if they carried any of the 850 books on his hit list.
“It’s a troubling development in this fight, where lawmakers are getting involved in basically doing the work of professional librarians, are doing the work of professional educators, and making the case that because they in some way, shape or form are allocating funds to support this institution, then they have the say on what is actually presented on the shelves or in the classroom,” Higgins said.
The #FReadom campaign in Texas is another grassroots effort. Sparked in response to Matt Krause’s list of condemned books, #FReadom started life as a Twitter hashtag where people were asked to tweet about diverse books across a day of action. After a huge success, the campaign morphed into a website, alongside behind-the-scenes work to support librarians facing book challenges. The goal is to uplift and support librarians, as well as providing resources for those who want to speak up. I spoke to retired librarian and one of the founders of #FReadom, Carolyn Foote.
“Obviously there’s a hunger for fighting back against censorship and fighting for intellectual freedom,” Foote told me. “So many librarians are scared to speak up. And so I’ve kind of become the spokesperson for our group because I am retired. I don’t have an institution keeping an eye on what I’m saying.”
Book challenges, she said, are extremely isolating for librarians. But the empathy and support the campaign musters is designed to give people hope, and to remind people who librarians are.
When Matt Krause’s list of books came out, she remembers how glaringly obvious it was that the target was books about race, authors of colour and LGBTQ+ topics.
“We felt like it was so important to speak up on [behalf of our] more marginalised kids or more vulnerable kids, because it was their stories being removed from the shelf,” she said.
When America’s bookshelves are emptied of very specific books, everyone loses. The young readers, the librarians, the teachers and the communities that miss out on important and varied conversations. Uncomfortable topics are buried instead of addressed, brilliant books become taboo. As Carolyn Foote said to me, “Libraries are about truth telling.”
But while the book ban figures increase and a new threat looms, the movement to unban books shows no signs of slowing down.
An earlier modified version of this article was originally published on The Bookseller.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, a supporter of Index on Censorship, passed away on 21 July 2015 at 84.
A lifelong champion of free expression and considered one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, Doctorow’s passing comes at a time when freedom of speech is being challenged across the USA, from no-platforming in universities to the banning of books and materials.
Doctorow was born to second-generation Russian Jewish parents in the Bronx, New York, an area he loved and one which formed the basis for many of his novels. He had his first literary work published while still a teenager in his high school magazine and went on to study with the poet John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College, Ohio, where he majored in philosophy.
He started his literary career in publishing but began writing novels in the late 1960s. His first published work was The Book of Daniel, a fictional account of the trial and execution of convicted US communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, written from the viewpoint of their children. Ragtime, his next novel, was published in 1975 and is considered his best, named at number 86 in the top 100 American novels of the twentieth century by the Modern Library editorial board. A work of historical fiction, Ragtime focuses on a wealthy family in early twentieth century New York. He went on to pen nine further books, three more of which were award-winners (World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate and The March), and in 2014 he won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.
Doctorow championed numerous causes promoting the right to global freedom of expression. In the January 1988 issue of Index on Censorship magazine, he was noted, along with a multitude of other American writers, as having been monitored extensively by the FBI due to his works being considered, “subversive, suspicious or unconventional”. In the late 1980s, he was on the board of the Fund for Free Expression, New York, who assisted and supported Index’s work.
Later in life, in 2013, he was one of over one hundred signatories on a letter calling on the Chinese government to respect its population’s right to freedom of expression, and he was heavily involved with the work of PEN America, serving on their board and judging at their literary awards. He refused to be silenced in his efforts to draw the world’s attention to the plights of censored writers until his death.