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Books are Sparking Fires

By GRR Editorial Committee

For as long as humans have engaged in power struggles, there has been censorship. For as long as the printed page has existed, there have been banned books. Calls to “protect” people from certain books often rise when groups in power feel threatened.

Yet, aside from two recent eras – the McCarthy era in the 1950s and the Moral Majority era of the 1980s – the number of books challenged across the country has typically numbered in the hundreds each year. Since 2020, that number has exploded into the thousands. A comprehensive review of recent efforts is reported in PEN America’s Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.

There’s an emotional pull to want to protect our children from topics they may not be ready to process or understand. Parents have a legitimate interest in whether and when their children are exposed to the issues that even adults struggle to understand. But do parents also have the right to restrict which books are available to other children or adults?

Children and teens should be protected from violence, sexually graphic material and other age inappropriate topics while they’re in school – but they’re often exposed to these topics through social media, and from each other. There can be benefits to having adults present materials in a way that can be safely discussed and processed. Book banners will say that adults can access these books by buying them privately. Opponents argue that it’s important children and teens see themselves represented in the places they inhabit, including schools, and that exposure to different life experiences can foster tolerance, understanding and social-emotional development.

Who gets to decide? Is there a difference between protecting your own child from graphic content and demanding that everyone’s children be prevented from accessing a range of ideas?

Is there a difference between objecting to a book that’s part of a required reading list and a book that’s simply available in the school’s library, or the town’s public library? When do students’ rights supersede parents’ rights?

Adding to the debate is the fact that the sheer number of objections to books has dramatically increased since 2020. Instead of local complaints stemming from a few concerned parents, a large percentage of the book challenges over the past three years have come from members of several conservative groups. PEN America has identified eight groups that have among them at least 300 local or regional chapters. These groups share lists of books to challenge, and they employ tactics such as swarming school board meetings, demanding rating systems for libraries, using inflammatory language about “grooming” and “pornography,” and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers, and librarians. The majority of these groups appear to have formed in 2021, and many of the banned books counted by PEN America can be linked in some way to their activities. Some of the groups espouse Christian nationalist political views, while many have mission statements oriented toward reforming public schools, in some cases to offer more religious education. (source: Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools). Among the most well known are Moms For Liberty and No Left Turn In Education.

Also new are initiatives to not only challenge books housed in school libraries, but to also legislate censored materials and discussions. Several states have passed legislation making it illegal to provide visually explicit sexual material to students or discuss issues of gender and/or racism.

Countering these movements are groups such as Red Wine and Blue, Defense of Democracy, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. But it’s too soon to tell what impact these groups may have on turning the tide.

What gets lost in many debates is that most educators, librarians and parents already use discretion in choosing which books to add to a curriculum or library shelf. When should a local school board heed the requests of upset parents and when do they owe responsibility to other parents who have no objections?

As is often the case, the devil is in the details. To better understand some recent objections to books in public schools, here are three of the Top 50 most commonly challenged books in 2022:

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This is the story of a 16-year-old Black girl who attends a predominately White school to access a better education. She struggles with fitting in both at school and in her Black neighborhood. During a police stop, the main character watches as her friend is killed when he’s mistakenly believed to be reaching for a gun. She must navigate the pressures of the different worlds she lives in to obtain justice.

Objections: the book features elements of profanity (e.g. there are 89 uses of the “F” word), racism, drug use and violence. It’s also challenged for having anti-police messages.

Defense: The book provides a needed insight into the topic of police brutality. It allows urban people of color to see themselves and the issues they face represented in our culture. There were 800 deaths at the hands of police in 2021 and the book provides a gateway into discussing important social issues. The author defends the book in this interview: The Real Reason The Hate U Give Became a Banned Book

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

This memoir is a series of essays following Johnson's journey growing up as a queer Black man. The essays recount the trauma Johnson carries from feeling obligated to hold in all emotions and pain due to society’s expectations of how boys should act. The essays explore the author’s identity crisis and feelings of not belonging as they come to terms with being queer and feelings of betrayal by the education system regarding learning U.S. history as a Black child. Family dynamics, acceptance, and navigating society’s hostilities are also highlighted.

Objection: The book contains details of homosexual encounters, masturbation and profanity.

Defense: "Students ... have publicly said on record that works like mine have saved their lives, works like mine have helped them name their abusers, works like mine have helped them come to terms with who they are and feel validated in the fact that there is somebody else that exists in the world like them," Johnson says. "And you want to remove that from them. I just think it's sad. And this is really just an attack on an ideology, that just says that LGBTQ people shouldn't exist. And they want teens to feel unsafe and to feel silenced — and that is just something that I refuse to see happen again, because I lived as one that felt that way."

Dr. Seuss books – specifically the six titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, The Cat’s Quizzer. These books were not banned but have been taken out of print by Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

Objection: These six titles portray Asian and Black characters in ways that are demeaning and harmful. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) had a history of publishing racist and anti-Semitic work, spanning back to the 1920s when he was a student at Dartmouth College. There, Dr. Seuss once drew Black boxers as gorillas and perpetuated Jewish stereotypes by portraying Jewish characters as financially stingy. The books illustrate Asian men in pointy hats carrying a White man, suggesting oppression, and show Black men with large lips and ape-like appearances.

Defense: Like most Seuss books, these portray the imaginings of children who wonder what life might be like under different circumstances. Sometimes these are creative responses to adults squashing a child’s whimsy. They feature fanciful worlds where children are encouraged to nurture their own imaginations. The books contain only a few objectionable illustrations and are not central to the themes of the books.

Is there hypocrisy in liberals supporting the removal of books that are offensive to their values, but objecting to the removal of books that offend conservative values? Is there a double standard?

Is objectionable content being taken out of context? Should parents be required to read any book before they can file a challenge?

You may find that a debate based on principals of free speech, decency, and parents’ rights changes once the details of specific books are more closely examined. We invite you to join us for our April Courageous Conversation on April 30th to discuss further. Details will be posted on our website and Facebook page.

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