Magazine Perspective

A War Beyond Words

A barrage of book bans threatens education and equity

By Kelly Jensen

Spring 2024

Unsuitable for young children.” “Homosexual overtones.” “Sexually explicit.” “An underlying socialist-communist agenda.” These are some of the complaints filed with local school boards and state legislatures around the country by parents and activists wanting to ban Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In the novel, Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African American girl, becomes pregnant after her alcoholic father rapes her.

The Bluest Eye is just one book under attack in a historic wave of book bans in K–12 schools across the United States. In the 2022–23 school year alone, local school and library boards banned 3,362 books in K–12 schools, a staggering 33 percent increase from the 2021–22 school year. The number of bans in the first half of the 2023–24 school year was twice that of the entire previous academic year. Book bans occurred in at least thirty-three states, with Florida leading the nation with 72 percent of the bans, according to PEN America, a freedom of expression advocacy group.

I am intimately familiar with this phenomenon. In 2023, school districts in Tennessee and Missouri banned a book I edited from school libraries and classrooms. Body Talk: 37 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy is an anthology of illustrations, comics, and essays that explore bodily experiences such as sexuality, gender identity, and eating disorders.

Proponents of book bans argue that bans are necessary because parents, not schools and public libraries, have the right to decide whether and when their children should read books on topics like sexuality, gender identity, violence, and drug use. However, bans not only undermine education at the K–12 level; they are also poised to have a profoundly harmful effect on the next generation of college and university students. Access to books and educational opportunities now differ significantly depending on where students attend school. These disparities can affect students’ intellectual development, attitudes toward reading, and acquisition of cultural capital—all of which leaves young people ill-equipped to succeed in college.

Students in school districts with book bans also have a disadvantage when taking assessments like Advanced Placement (AP) exams, leaving these students less able to compete in the college admissions process. For example, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has appeared on the AP English Literature and Composition Exam more than any other American novel, but at least five US school districts have banned the book. In short, book bans exacerbate existing educational inequities among students and create new ones.

Commonly banned books in the United States fall into three broad categories: books that provide sexual education, books that promote social-emotional learning, and books by or about those from historically marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community. Bans disproportionately target the last category.

School districts have banned children’s titles such as Peter Mayle’s Where Did I Come From, an illustrated book on human sexuality. However, bans more frequently take aim at books written for teenagers. Maia Kobabe’s memoir, Gender Queer, is the most banned book nationwide because of its “sexually explicit” nature, while George M. Johnson’s young adult memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, about growing up Black and queer, follows closely behind. While such books are often recreational reading choices rather than classroom assignments, staples of literature and history curricula like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus are also popular targets.

The banning of these books further stigmatizes vulnerable students from historically marginalized communities. Students of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community may even feel that they are banned and that their identity is not acceptable.

Right-wing groups such as Citizens Defending Freedom, Moms for Liberty, and Parents’ Rights in Education have established effective strategies for initiating and implementing book bans. Bans usually begin at the local level when a parent, educator, administrator, politician, or community member, frequently with the support of one of these organizations, complains to the school district about a specific book. This alone often leads to the book’s removal from classrooms and/or libraries.

Legislation passed at the state level also results in bans. For instance, the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay’’ bill, ordered the removal of all books and materials containing LGBTQ+ characters and themes from classrooms and campus libraries. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida modified the law in 2023 to allow some materials in high schools, and a March 2024 court settlement overturned a large part of the law, but a prohibition on classroom lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation remains in place.

Bans are implemented in a variety of ways. Emily Knox, a professor of library and information sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, classifies material censorship into four Rs: redaction, restriction, relocation, and removal. Redaction is the deliberate altering of material from its original version, such as marking out profanity or covering up passages. Restriction limits who can access materials. Relocation is the intentional re-cataloging and reshelving of material from one place to another so that its target audience does not have immediate access to it. For example, a school district might move books about sexual education aimed at preteens from the middle school library to the high school library. The final R, removal, is an outright book ban.

Censorship advocates often manipulate the semantics of the four Rs to dodge accusations of book bans. For instance, those calling for the removal of certain books from schools argue that it’s not a book ban because students can still access the books at the public library, the local bookstore, or online. These advocates, however, don’t mention that they are also attempting to ban the same books from public libraries or that they are pushing for state-level legislation to target what book publishers can print.

If access to books and freedom of expression matter to you, get involved. I’ve learned that actions can make all the difference when trying to battle book bans.

First, activism to end book bans begins at the ballot box. Pay attention to down-ballot candidates. Know who is running for local school and library boards and what their goals are. Watch out for indications that a candidate supports book bans. These include the use of phrases like “book curation” and “parental rights” and arguments that book removals are not book bans.

Second, try to get into decision-maker positions. Join committees that make determinations about K–12 curriculum and the content of public and school libraries. Consider running for the local school board.

Third, attend public school and library board meetings. Review board documents, and submit letters both when concerning issues arise and when beleaguered educators and librarians need support in your community.

Ultimately, your voice is your most powerful weapon. Speak out about the importance of reading and having access to books. Champion the inclusion of books from a wide range of perspectives in libraries and curricula. If you are an instructor, assign books by authors from marginalized communities. And when books are banned, choose to be an ally to those who are most affected.

As someone fighting to protect access to books, I believe we must be as well organized, resourced, and committed as those who are trying to ban books. That’s the only way to win this war.

Illustration by Javier Jaén

Author

  • Kelly Jensen

    Kelly Jensen is an author and editor at the independent editorial book site Book Riot and a former librarian.

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