Banned Books: Then to Now

In honor or Banned Books week, we’re going to be examining the rise and continued relevance of book banning, as well as how the topic has continued to be portrayed.

Origins of banned books

Book bans are not a new or unusual thing– the first banned books in the United States dates back to 1637. The New English Canaan, written by Thomas Morton, was a direct critique of Puritan customs. New Englanders, even some of the most progressive, had a hard time stomaching Morton’s work, so the text was effectively banned.

View at the Smithsonian Library

Since the 1600s, hundreds of books have been banned and contested for a variety of reasons. The American Library Association‘s Office for Intellectual Freedom put together a list of the top 100 most banned and challenged books from 2010 to 2019. Some of the highlights include The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, and 1984 by George Orwell.

Anytime I see a banned book list, I’m always shocked by how many of those books I have read and found insightful rather than problematic. My own personal views aside, though, it’s clear that certain texts contain content that means something to many people, for good or for bad.

Present state of banned books

Over the last few years, there has been an uptick in rhetoric and discussion about the banning of certain books. In the Keller Independent School District in Fort Worth, Texas, a list of 40 books that were to be pulled from classrooms was sent to teachers. Books ranging from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to the Bible were under review due to concerns from parents (more information here). Some of those books have since been recirculated, but it’s obvious that book bans are still a relevant issue.

In December of 2021, the Oklahoma Senate introduced a bill that would prohibit books with certain content and allow parents to file requests for books to be removed. If school officials do not remove the requested books, they could be subject to removal from their jobs.

Senate Bill 1142 prohibits public school districts, public charter schools, and public school libraries from having or promoting books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, gender identity, or books that contain content of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know about or approve of before their child was exposed to it. 

Oklahoma Senate Bill 1142

In March, Bill Konigsberg, a YA author from Phoenix who primarily writes LGBTQ+ novels, had several of his books put on banned book list submitted by parents in a North Texas school district. The parents cited all 282 of the books on their list as being inappropriate for any K-12 student.

One of Konigsberg’s books that was banned, The Bridge, deals with potential suicide of severely depressed teens. It outlines several different paths the teens can take— one could jump off the bridge, they both could, or neither could.

In response to the Texas parents’ list, Konigsberg wrote a response questioning the assessment of his book and explaining the how his text actually can protect kids.

by Bill Konigsberg

So what do all of these attempts to ban texts have to do with each other, and where are these censorship sentiments coming from?

Fear between the pages

The New Mexico Literacy Project identifies “fear” as a technique for political rhetoric. When people are afraid of something, it’s easy to introduce a solution to make that “fear” go away.

In the case of book bans, parents, well-intentioned community members, and others are manipulated into fearing books that discuss issues like sexuality or race will expose their children to pornographic or racist ideas. In 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote to the Texas Education Agency demanded that they ensure “no Texas child is exposed to pornography or obscene content while in a Texas public school.”

I think most people agree children shouldn’t be exposed to pornography or obscenity in schools, but is that really happening through texts that discuss sexuality, or does language drawing attention to worst-case scenarios set up an educational environment that promotes censorship?

A Time list of top challenged books from 2001 and the reasons for their bans further illuminates these fears that “justify” banning books.

In the name of keeping children away from sexually explicit content, offensive language and even occultist viewpoints, books are censored out of fear.

According to an American Library Association poll, though, 71% of voters oppose the removal of books from public libraries. Even with the majority of Americans believing book bans are generally not good, we’re still seeing a definitive push for censorship of things that challenge beliefs (like the New English Canaan) or are though to be bad or scary (the idea that discussing sexuality is akin to pornographic or explicit content).

Fear propaganda is a powerful thing, and when we talk about complex issues like content of books, it’s important to keep that idea of fear in mind at all times, even when it comes to fearing censorship.

A Slate article from 2015 claims that true book bans are actually not that prevalent. According to the piece, even though there are plenty of challenges to school libraries, it is far less likely for books to be fully banned (like from a public library for example), meaning the public still has access to the materials in question.

I think the article is semi-dismissive of the implications of attempting to restrict what can be discussed at school, but in the name of not succumbing to any fear propaganda, it’s important to include that side of this discussion.

What do you think? How have you seen book bans function, and why do you think it is a particularly contested issue right now?

by Anna Campbell

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