Book bans and boycotts are nothing new. Throughout history, select titles have caused ire amongst religious factions, political divides, and parents’ unions for various reasons. The Harry Potter novels, for example, received backlash in their heyday for the supposed influence of black magic at play. To Kill A Mockingbird has become a problematic novel for its use of racial slurs and the white saviour motif, despite once being heralded as an important text on racism. The Handmaid’s Tale is constantly challenged due to its depiction of sexual violence and religious criticism. There’s a long list with contentions that range from the expected to the head-scratching, and plain bizarre. Usually, however, these problems haven’t expanded beyond mere parent-teacher associations and small organisations. Usually. It seems now things might be starting to change.
With an “unprecedented” 330 book challenges recorded by the American Library Association (ALA) last Autumn/Fall, there’s been a sharp increase in calls to curtail cultural change, particularly in the South. Texas State Representative Matt Krause put over 800 books on a “watch list” recently; many of which deals with race and LGBTQ issues. In Oklahoma, there was a bill filed to ban books that address “sexual perversion”. In a county in Tennessee, the Holocaust-themed Maus was outright banned (for violent and sexual imagery). Police in South Carolina challenged The Hate U Give for perpetuating a “distrust in police”. And perhaps most surprisingly, Governor Greg Abbott (of Texas) called for criminal charges against school staff member providing access to young adult novels considered “pornography”. (This would be somewhat understandable for a school, except for the fact that you must question who deems the category.)
Despite popularising the term “snowflake” for liberals, it seems most of these contentions are coming from conservative factions and parents. Their concerns are not necessarily without merit, to be fair. It’s important for students to be given a broad and comprehensive reading list in their curriculum; not one which tilts too largely towards a political ideology. With that said, these challenges have expanded beyond any traditional coursework to libraries stocking books students may just happen upon. And… the process of taking these books down has been short-circuited with librarians growing weary of “concerns” and withdrawing controversial titles before the appropriate committee has even made a decision.
This is particularly unfair for LGBTQ students. Titles like All Boys Aren’t Blue and Heather Has Two Mommies have been challenged just because they don’t present an old-fashioned, heteronormative view in line with the cultural values of certain areas. It sends a message of exclusion to them while running the mistaken exercise of thinking you can shut out knowledge. As Emily Knox (author of Book Banning in 21st Century America) stated in an interview on Slate.com, “people are trying to get books like Maus banned because they are afraid that if their children read them, they will have different values” from their parents. Perhaps then, this can be seen as a desperate last leg to stand on in the generational and culture wars.
With the ALA reporting a 67% increase in attempts to ban school library books from September 2020 to September 2021, one can only worry where this will go next. Primarily, these contentions have come from the right, although it must be acknowledged that the left’s concerns over appropriate language for today’s sensibilities (with Mockingbird or something like Huckleburry Finn or Of Mice and Men) should draw concern and ridicule too. The banning and boycotting of any books, even with the best of intentions, reflects an insecurity on the part of the challengers as well as a high level of patronising. Hopefully, the #FReadom campaign in Texas (of school librarians), among others, will help reinforce the obvious notion that banning something makes it all the more interesting.