Attempts to ban books have grown in the United States in recent years, growing from relatively isolated battles to a broader effort targeting works about sexual and racial identity. Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth Harris cover the publishing industry. I told them about what is behind this trend.
Claire: How did book banning efforts become so widespread?
Alexandra: We’ve seen it go from a school or community issue to a really polarizing political issue. Before, parents heard about a book because their child brought home a copy; now, complaints on social media about inappropriate material are going viral, leading to more complaints in schools and libraries nationwide.
The elect are also turning the book ban into another corner issue in the culture wars. Last fall, a Republican representative from Texas compiled a list of 850 books he said were inappropriate material in schools and included books on sexuality, racism and American history. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin has campaigned on the issue, saying parents, not schools, should control what their children read. Democrats have also taken up the issue in congressional hearings on increasing book bans.
And, sometimes, the differences turned into something more threatening. The Proud Boys, the far-right group with a history of street fighting, showed up at a drag queen-hosted storytime for families at a library in San Lorenzo, California.
Why do parents and conservatives want these bans?
Alexandra: For some parents, it’s about preventing children from reading certain things. Others want to introduce certain topics — like LGBT rights or race — to their children themselves.
Many people I’ve spoken to say they don’t consider the bans they want to be racist or bigoted. They say the books contain specific content that they believe is not appropriate for children, and they sometimes point to explicit passages. But the librarians we speak to say the most contested books across the country are mostly about black or brown or LGBT characters.
In Texas, residents sued a library after a library official removed books from shelves based on a list from an elected official. They weren’t all children’s books; the list included “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “How to Be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi.
It’s hard to untangle the wave of bans from other conservative efforts to use the government to limit expression, including what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. These are all movements that have overlapped and spurred debates on the banning of books.
Elizabeth: The book ban is part of a larger political context at the moment, of extreme polarization, heightened political tensions and the amplification of certain messages by the types of media – social or otherwise – that people consume.
Has a interdiction effort made an impression on you?
Elizabeth: In Virginia Beach, a local politician sued Barnes & Noble over two books, “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe, and “A Court of Mist and Fury,” a fantasy novel. This lawmaker wants Barnes & Noble to stop selling these titles to minors. The costume will probably not succeed. But it’s an escalation: the problem has gone from people thinking their children shouldn’t read certain books to trying to stop other people’s children from reading certain books.
I understand why some of the battles around reading in school are so intense: by definition, teachers make choices about what books kids will — and won’t — read, and parents may not always be concerned. ‘OK. Efforts to take books from libraries are different, right?
Elizabeth: When people try to get a book out of the library, they decide for everyone that no one has access to a particular book. But librarians are trained to present a range of viewpoints. For them, it is a matter of professional ethics to ensure that the point of view of one person or group does not dictate what everyone reads.
Elizabeth: Banning books can also be harmful to children who identify with the storylines of banned books in their community. The question for the child becomes, “What’s wrong with me?”
How are librarians reacting?
Alexandra: It’s heartbreaking for them. Librarians say they got into this field because they enjoyed reading and talking to people about books. Some quit their jobs; some were fired for refusing to remove books. Others resigned after being the subject of a deluge of insults on social networks.
A Texas librarian quit after 18 years because she was bullied online. She left the state and took a job in technology.
Elizabeth: The movement is not going away as long as the midterms are ahead of us. And the school year will start just as election season really heats up, so the two could add fuel to that fire.
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