Politicians and other public figures continue to push the culture wars as a distraction instead of focusing on solving the very real problems facing our schools and communities. Their actions cause harm while preventing the kind of collaborative problem-solving we so urgently need. All of us must speak up.
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles in just the first eight months of 2023. The number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20% from the same reporting period in 2022, a year that had already shattered censorship records. Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49% of documented challenges, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022. Challenges by a single person or group demanding the removal or restriction of multiple titles dominate, with over 90% of the overall number of books challenged included as part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.
“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy” (uniteagainstbookbans.org).
Libraires themselves are under attack. “Some libraries have received bomb threats; others are at risk of having their funding slashed, or even face closure, over disputes about book removals. In some instances, librarians have been harassed, threatened and called groomers and pedophiles” (nytimes.com).
According to PEN America, the movement to ban books is driven by a vocal minority demanding censorship despite a 2022 poll showing that over 70% of parents oppose book banning. PEN counted book removals in school and classroom libraries during the 2022-2023 school year and found 3,362 cases of books being removed, a 33 percent increase over the previous school year. More than 1,550 individual titles were targeted. Many of the same books are challenged around the country, including classics by Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, and contemporary young adult fiction by popular authors like John Green. “The most dramatic spike in book bans took place in Florida, which removed more than 1,400 books and surpassed Texas as the state with the highest number of removals, according to PEN. Florida emerged as a hot spot for book challenges after the state passed several laws aimed in part at restricting educational and reading material on certain subjects. As school districts scrambled to comply with the new regulations earlier this year, some teachers and librarians removed entire shelves of books” (pen.org).
Free speech advocates worry that some school districts will further limit book access by suspending new book purchases or avoid stocking books on topics that might be viewed as controversial. “The way it’s going to begin to manifest may look different,” said Kasey Meehan, the lead author of PEN’s report. “We’ll begin to see this chilled atmosphere play out in different ways, either through quietly removing books, or not bringing books in, in the first place” (nytimes.com).
The novelist Nora Roberts responded to the decision of a Martin County, Florida school to purge eight of her novels based on the complaints of a single member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty: “All of it is shocking…If you don’t want your teenager reading this book, that’s your right as a mom — and good luck with that. But you don’t have the right to say nobody’s kid can read this book.” The very same parents who want their parental rights protected too often would do so by denying those rights to other parents (washingtonpost.com).
Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois Secretary of State and State Librarian, recently testified to a Senate Judiciary Committee, “Our democracy depends on a marketplace of ideas [that] will not function if we ban books, because we will be banning ideas and preventing our children from thinking for themselves and having the ability to debate and learn and understand different perspectives” (chicagotribune.com). But even in Illinois books are being removed. The Yorkville school board removed the book Just Mercy from the curriculum, deeming it inappropriate and upsetting for teens. This book explores issues in the American justice system and should promote meaningful discussion. I’m proud of Yorkville High School senior Alexis Barkman. She said, “By allowing the opinions of a select few to influence what is taught in our classrooms, you’re sending the message that their beliefs are more important that the quality of our education. You’re depriving us of our freedom to read and form our own opinions about the subjects you deem too controversial” (shawlocal.com).
Such behavior for political purposes is offensive to me. Look at a Missouri candidate for governor, State Senator Bill Eigel. A long-shot at best, he very publicly used a flamethrower to set cardboard boxes on fire. Eigel said he would burn books he found objectionable, and that he’d do it on the lawn outside the governor’s mansion. Later he claimed this was all a metaphor for how he would attack “the woke liberal agenda” (chicagotribune.com). Is this dangerous stunt more important than the key issues defined by Missouri University Extension: economic opportunity, educational access and workforce preparedness, and health and wellbeing (muextensionway.missouri.edu)? Of course not.
And books aren’t the only front line. The United States Senate is arguing over a dress code even as the nation faces a likely government shutdown and its consequential impact. A black student in Texas just filed a federal civil rights lawsuit because his high school disapproves of his dreadlocks even though he ties them up on his head to meet school requirements (chicagotribune.com). When we continue to face an achievement gap for students of color and a school-to-prison pipeline, is this really our priority?
Heidi Stevens, my favorite Chicago Tribune columnist, said it best: “Stop pretending book bans are about sex… Stop pretending we can solve the most pressing, dire issues of our time – the climate crisis, the opioid overdose epidemic, gun violence, the recent doubling of childhood poverty – the mental health crisis among young people – without including all sorts of voices, stories, perspectives, ideas, experiences, and wisdom in public discourse and policy making” (www.chicagotribune.com). Please heed her call to action and reach out to your elected officials.