“We the Students” Want to Read Banned Books!

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In one of my previous lives as a freelance writer, I was active in the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). One of ASJA’s yearly efforts was a celebration of the freedom to read through commemorating Banned Books Week, which you can read about here.

One year, I organized a reading of banned books at a Waldenbooks store in a nearby shopping mall. I was pleased to snare two good speakers: our member of Congress and an opinion writer for the county paper.

The Congressman was particularly affecting as he read from John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. He noted that his mother had been a librarian who’d instilled in him at an early age the importance of not only reading per se, but also having the freedom to read whatever one chose.

There wasn’t a huge turnout, but I proudly wore my “I Read Banned Books” pin and felt the event had been a small success in an ongoing battle that must always be waged.

Now, 70 bills have been introduced by Republican legislators in at least 31 states to tell educators what they may and may not teach their students, and school libraries are being forced to remove books that cover topics some parents and the culture war politicians who often incite them deem inappropriate or offensive—even pornographic.

These books cover sex and sex education, LBGTQ issues, anything about race that might make white students feel “uncomfortable”—such as a fact-based education about slavery in the US and its lingering impact—and other topics.

Recently, a Tennessee school board voted unanimously to ban Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel written as an animal fable about the author’s parents in the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman, who wrote Maus, called the banning “Orwellian.”

Spiegelman agreed that the book contains “disturbing imagery” but said “You know what? It’s disturbing history.”

He’d read the minutes of the school board meeting and concluded the members were asking: “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”

The politics behind this assault is obvious. The very vocal and ambitious governors of Texas and Florida have been in the forefront of these campaigns, calling for investigations into the titles available in their state’s school libraries. This is scary stuff.

It’s definitely become politicized,” said Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association, quoted in an Education Week article. “We haven’t seen or heard of challenges like these probably in the last 40 years.”

Several of my friends who are retired teachers have lamented our collective failure over decades to train students to be discerning and critical thinkers. Their belief seems to me supported by the shouts from adherents of the Big Lie and other conspiracy theories on the Internet, the anti-science mindset that has led to anti-vaccine and anti-masking hysteria that has prolonged and worsened the pandemic, and other signs of intellectual vacuity.

We dare not allow the growth of this dangerous, small-minded attempt to deprive young people of the opportunity to assess for themselves the validity of ideas that may frighten their elders. Book banning is right up there with vote suppression as ways to weaken our democracy.

No one disputes that parents have the right to be involved in what their own children read, but the National Coalition Against Censorship points out that policies governing these decisions are in place in almost all communities already—as are mechanisms to handle challenges.

Still, there’s clearly a need to make parents aware that the issue of what their children shouldn’t read is another far right grievance wedge—this one using school library books as campaign fodder.

And even if these parents are acting out of the best of intentions, I think life teaches us that parents do their children no favor by cloistering them in an existence that will not prepare them for the real world.

Fortunately, a backlash has begun. The article in Education Week describes a group of Texas librarians who reacted to what they call the politicians and parents’ “war on books.” Via a website they created, they offer “I support #FReadom” apparel and tote bags. They’re also constantly registering their opposition with their state legislators.

According to Education Week, this small group is part of a larger movement of librarians, teachers, students, parents, and book authors in Texas and other states to combat this censorship trend.

PEN America, an organization devoted to protecting free expression in the United States and worldwide, is distributing a tip sheet for students to help them respond in a number of ways.

They urge students to appear before their local school boards.

Remind your school leadership that you, as a student, should be the focal point of the school. Talk to them about why a challenged book is important to you.”

Students in Granbury, Texas, confronted the school board members who were censoring their reading choices.

“I’m simply going to say that no government—and public school is an extension of government—has ever banned books and banned information from its public and been remembered in history as the good guys,” said a high school junior.

One of the banned books (I’m not sure where) is in a category by itself, but the threat it poses to those who choose to ban books is clear.

Congressman Jamie Raskin, a former Constitutional Law professor and expert on the First Amendment, wrote a book called “We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students,” now in its third edition.

I saw Raskin as he responded to an interviewer’s query about the banning of his book. “They should have read my book first before banning it,” he said, referring to the chapter on Island Trees School District v Pico (1982).

In that case, the Supreme Court held, according to the Bill of Rights Institute, “that the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content.”

Briefly, the school board ignored the recommendations of a committee of parents and school staff that it had created–and ordered removal of eleven books it deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”

The books included Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, and Go Ask Alice by Anonymous.

High school senior Steven Pico and others sued, stating that the Board’s action had denied them their rights under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court “remanded the dispute for further findings of fact.”

At that point, the school board voted to return the books but insisted that a student checking one of them out must bring home a parental warning.

But the New York attorney general determined that requirement violated the confidentiality of library records. Finally, the board voted—narrowly—to allow the books in the school libraries.

Raskin is a brilliant legal mind and the First Amendment is his forte, so his confidence in that ruling inspired me. Ah, I thought, perhaps there’s a First Amendment Supreme Court ruling that even the current Supreme Court would feel obligated to withhold.

But as I dug deeper, I found that the decision was 5-4, and there was no majority opinion.

Justice Brennan wrote that “nothing in our decision today affects in any way the discretion of a local school board to choose books to add to the libraries of their schools. Because we are concerned in this case with the suppression of ideas, our holding today affects only the discretion to remove books.”

Hmmm. So though I hope Congressman Raskin understands something about this case that I missed, I fear that once again we have to be concerned about what today’s Supreme Court would decide in such a case.

And once again we are reminded how important it is to elect local Board of Education members who are dedicated to the concept that the students they protect need to be exposed to many diverse ideas and individuals—and that the First Amendment remains a linchpin to our democracy.

Annie

29 thoughts on ““We the Students” Want to Read Banned Books!

  1. Excellent post, Annie!!! You filled in some gaps that I failed to cover in my post, and added some information that I was unaware of, such as Jamie Raskin’s own book having been banned! Thank you … I am adding a link to your post to my own.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. My pleasure, Annie! My strength … comes and goes, with some days being better than others, but still, about 10 minutes on my feet is my limit and by then there seems to be a ever-tightening belt around my chest. Still, I’m better than I was two months ago, so I’m okay.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Books have always been my favourite way to teach children about almost everything… as a child myself I read voraciously, as a parent I held nightly “reading marathons” with my kids, and as an English teacher I carefully chose selections which would help students understand history, appreciate literature and become stewards of the beautiful, tumultuous world they were preparing to inherit…. And although there have been many times along the way when I have had to explain choices, I assumed that we were generally past the times of book banning (at least here in our corner of the world). I am saddened to hear of the banning of Maus (my own teens were filling me in at the supper table the other day), and even more astounded to hear that this is a common practice currently in the U.S.
    Thank-you, Annie, for filling us in on this oh-so-important issue.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re very welcome, Janine, and thank you for that lovely encapsulation of the role books have played in your life. I’d rather be writing about happier subjects, but this book banning is so far from what we should be doing as a country. It’s not unprecedented in our history, of course, but there seems to be a particular virulence these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This idiotic censorship will ultimately backfire. Trying to stop students from having access to a book will just make them more interested in reading it, and in most cases they ultimately will, one way or another. A couple of times I’ve found that a book I wanted to order was not stocked by one of the usual places I get books from, because they deemed it ideologically objectionable, and that just made me all the more determined to get hold of it. Look at Maus. Posts about the ban on that book are all over the blogosphere, the school board looks like a bunch of idiots, and people who had barely heard of the book before are now learning about it and will likely take an interest.

    Grassroots actions like banned-book readings, promoting banned books and making them available in venues outside the control of school boards, and pushback at the school-district level, are the way to go here. We can’t count on the government to do the right thing. The Supreme Court is “captured” for the foreseeable future, and in any case no party or ideology is reliably anti-censorship — different ideologies just want to censor different things.

    We need to be careful, however, not to frame anti-censorship efforts as a challenge to parental authority. That’s a sure-fire vote-loser no matter the nuances. Instead, the point is that parents have a right to a say in what’s appropriate for their own children, but the book-banners are trying to take that decision out of the hands of parents by taking books they don’t like out of the reach of everybody’s children, not just their own.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Infidel: Thanks very much for giving this post more exposure.
      It’s true that attention to censorship often increases a book’s audience. Maus has regained best-seller status on some lists. But too many other books remain under the radar and their readership is diminished.
      Your point about where the emphasis should be in addressing this issue with parents is well taken.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Denise.

      I thought Spiegelman’s comment was brilliant. The Tennessee board members were lamenting the disturbing imagery in Maus. Evidently, disturbing young people’s sensibilities is to them more dangerous than educating students about one of the most horrific examples of inhumanity.

      Best of luck to that young woman. She’s made such an important decision!

      Like

  4. Hello Annie. One thing I noticed about this round of book banning I missed before. These involved parents are not just saying the books are not acceptable for their children to read, they are also saying they do not want your children to be able to read them either. They are demanding the right to govern what information their children has access to but also demanding to have that right over other people’s children regardless of how that child’s parent feels. Their parental rights are above all others, their parental rights removes your parental rights. Stunning sense of entitlement and power. It is like these governors that say they want parents involvement in schools, want to give parents the rights to decide what is taught. But I notice it is always parents on the right, the most maga parents, the parents that are anti-mask or anti-vax that are invited to decide. They don’t want the opinion of the parents who disagree with them, nor do they want to give those parents equal say over what is taught. I think that tells everyone what is really behind this protect the children drive.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Scottie—

      First, welcome to annieasksyou! I’m delighted to have you with me and hope you’ll visit often and comment as you see fit.

      I emphatically agree with your observation. The parallels are everywhere: “Masking and vaxxing are MY choices; the hell with everyone else.” Similarly, “MY views on abortion mean no one else can have one.”

      It’s individualism run amok, encouraged and then enacted into law by right wing legislators and upheld by right wing judges/justices, financed by greed, and it’s tearing our country apart.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That isn’t individualism. It’s the exact opposite — authoritarianism, claiming a “right” to impose one’s will on other individuals and override their right of choice. Real individualism recognizes the right of all individuals to make their own choices and have them respected, and the right of all individuals to their own boundaries and safety — “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” The idea that “I can swing my fist wherever I want even if it hurts you” is the mentality of the tyrant and the bully, the diametrical opposite of the individualist.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I used “individualism run amok” to make the point that this behavior is not the rugged individualism too many people seem to espouse as the American ideal. It is certainly authoritarianism.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. These involved parents are not just saying the books are not acceptable for their children to read, they are also saying they do not want your children to be able to read them either.

      I’m willing to bet that those very same people scream and shout about how ‘the gubmint shouldn’t be able to tell me what I can do”, too.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Google “banned book clubs” and you’ll see that teens in many areas of the country, including Kutztown, PA, and other locales, have formed these groups. So there’s hope.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “We haven’t seen or heard of challenges like these probably in the last 40 years.”
    Let’s see, what was happening 40 years ago? Yeah, Reagan again. The same mook who wanted librarians to turn in anyone checking out books about AIDS and committed, by fiat, an act of chemical warfare against a neighboring country.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Also was responsible for hundreds of thousands of disabled people losing their insurance, questionable data systems making it impossible to know how many died on his watch, etc, etc, but ah, “morning in America!”

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Firstly, that sounds like a fantastic event you organised – I’d have loved to attend!

    The phenomenon of the banned book is always fascinating. Leaving aside the fact that it inevitably catalyses interest in the book through the banning, it always strikes me as an admission of defeat on behalf of the banner – is an idea so pervasive and offensive that people don’t trust themselves to read a text, lest it change their fragile perceptions? Are readers’ mental faculties and moral codes so tenuous that they will crumble after reading 350 pages? Madness!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was a fun event! Thanks, Matthew.
      As for our current madness, as you aptly describe it, I don’t think it’s as much about
      books as it is about generating anger and fear. At least Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, is seeing his book once again on the best seller lists. And brave soul that he is, he’s planning to have a Zoom meeting with that Tennessee community. It would be great to know some awakening of minds occurred as a result; we’ll have to see.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Alas, Joni—

      What we see is a willingness to ride roughshod over policies, laws, guardrails, and any norms most of us thought were safely in place.

      It’s profoundly troubling, and I keep hoping wiser, more thoughtful heads will prevail.

      Good to hear from you. I’ve been concerned bc it’s been a while. Hope everything is ok.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes everything is fine Annie. Thanks for thinking of me. I haven’t been on here for a week so am now trying to catch up on Reader. I didn’t have any posts ready as I was trying to finish up with another writing project I had going, but now it’s done and dusted! The weather has been so dreary and the news even worse….sometimes I worry for the state of the world….we seem to be going backwards in so many areas….

        Liked by 1 person

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