By Gabrielle Boone
Pennsylvania Home School
As book bans sweep across the nation, teenagers and librarians fight for representation and empathy and parents for parental say. Here is what all sides have to say.
In the year following national protests around the 2020 murder of George Floyd and increased social consciousness around LGBTQ+ issues, the content of books in public school libraries in Texas, Indianapolis, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming are increasingly under fire from conservative parent groups and politicians. The books in question tend to cover race, sexuality, gender expression, and identity, which critics say are too mature for students.
Now, the fight to remove offending subject matter is making its way across the country, reaching Pennsylvania, Florida, and Tennessee.
“I do not support the banning of books,” said Shelly Stewart, a mother and member of the Moms for Liberty located in Hamilton County, Indiana. “I support age-appropriate books that meet community guidelines in school libraries and classrooms.” Parent-run organizations such as Moms for Liberty are concerned about mature content being accessible to their kids in school.
“The school does not know better than the parent” what to teach their children, said Stewart.
The U.S. has a long-standing history with political-based book challenges and banning. From the 1800s to the present day, these bans continue to be motivated by opposing political beliefs and opinions. Certain groups try to limit books about controversial subjects or ideas they do not like.
The current book challenges and bans appear to stem from more conservative organizations and groups worried about the impact of teaching nuanced subjects like race and sexuality to young people.
For instance, critics of so-called “critical race theory” include politicians calling to remove books that explore racism and its roots in America’s history.
“Critical race theory asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist, not because of their actions, words or what they believe in their heart — but by virtue of the color of their skin,” said Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina.
But teenagers and librarians in multiple school districts have spoken out against the challenges and removals of books on the grounds of limited representation. Some teenagers feel that they need books that represent them and make them feel seen, arguing that heavier topics such as rape and sexuality serve an educational purpose — and are not just pornography or negative influences.
“I do feel like by the time you get to high school, the best way to [grow] is to start to expose teens to more difficult topics in a safe environment. And teach people to talk about [more traumatizing content],” said 18-year-old Eden Brown, a homeschooled student.
A few books out of the hundreds being reviewed include The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, and Maus by Art Spiegelman.
Two of these books are at the front of the removal campaign. In All Boys Aren’t Blue, the author depicts his story as a young queer Black man in America, with explicit sexual content some parents find unsettling. Spiegelman’s graphic novel ‘Maus’ depicts the atrocities of the Holocaust.
According to some critics, these types of stories are objectionable. “If parents want to expose their children to certain materials, that is their parental choice, and they can do that in their home,” Stewart said.
But Abington student Olivia Wade, a senior from Montgomery County, said, “If you don’t see yourself represented, how are you going to learn about all those experiences, and how are you going to feel normal?”
“We need to talk about these things in literature,” said Rev. Nadine Rosechild-Sullivan, who works at Rowan University as a lecturer in Sociology. “It is appropriate to express truth.”
Additionally, she says, someone who does not hold a marginalized identity may also not grow as a person. “This child will never get exposure [to different stories and people], and then this child can grow up bigoted. And I do believe there’s real harm to the child who grows up with those bigotries.”
Patrice Martin, a former librarian in the Abington school district, explained that there is a careful selection process public school librarians must follow to select the proper material to put in schools.
A book that includes heavier material may be chosen for a high school setting because the underlying messages and lessons are beneficial. The librarians’ job is to create an information base that aids the student body in the school. Public schools have students of all different backgrounds, identities, and orientations. The books chosen reflect this.
Rosechild-Sullivan shared her experiences living in a small town surrounded by people who were all white, like her. Her schools didn’t have libraries that provided her with information on different people. It was somewhat of a culture shock when she left her small town.
She finds it hard to return to her hometown because all the people are the same, and their lack of knowledge of others passes through the generations.
According to experts like Martin and Rosechild-Sullivan, books about other people and their lived experiences can impart empathy to children and young people. Reading others’ stories can help them develop a broader worldview.
High school senior Wade echoes those sentiments. “I get tired of just hearing about white people. I want to hear about, you know, different people from different walks of life.”