We seem to be living in a time when everything is threatening, from mask-wearing to books that some people find uncomfortable. It seems like anything can make anyone uncomfortable.
Book banning is on steroids as it races at breakneck speed across the country. Now, with the politicization of the issue, prosecutors are considering charging teachers and librarians who keep banned books on the shelves and in the curriculum.
I taught high school literature for the better part of 10 years. Kids are smarter, more thoughtful, and more resilient, than the credit given them.
They live in a world of complexity, diversity. They have gay friends. Or they are gay or nonbinary. Or maybe they are unsure. They go to school with or have friends of different races and cultures. They know that racism and discrimination exist. They know that physical and sexual abuse exist. They know about sex and drugs, and depression and anxiety. Will banning a book and erasing ideas that the book police deem inappropriate keep kids safe in a hermetically sealed box? Think again.
Ban a book and a kid will have it downloaded and password-protected in a nanosecond. Banning books doesn’t protect kids. It protects helicopter parents and ambitious politicians.
When I was teaching in private and pubic schools, I taught a number of books that were often challenged or banned, books that appeared on lists compiled by the American Library Association. So did my colleagues. We didn’t make syllabus selections because the books had been in dispute. We made choices because of our subject areas and because of ideas and stories that would show the kids something about the world, about people, time periods, cultures. We made choices that we thought would get the students thinking, asking questions, curious. Some of the titles that have been in question over time and that the kids in our classes held great discussions and debate about included: “The Book Thief,” “The Bluest Eye,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “The Poisonwood Bible,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Today, the common thread among this most recent attempt to ban books is that most of the books are about the lives of people of color and those who are LGBTQ — especially young people. For instance, “Ghost Boys” might make white children “feel ashamed based on color of their skin,” according to one parent. Others are fighting against “Melissa,” a novel about a transgender girl, and “Lawn Boy,” a novel about a young Mexican American which won the 2019 Alex Award.
Texas is on a tear. Nothing says it clearer than a recent headline: “Books on race and sexuality are disappearing from Texas schools in record numbers.” And then there are the questions raised by banning the graphic novel “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, based on his family’s experience in the Holocaust. “Maus” was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. And yet, last month a Tennessee school board unanimously voted to ban it.
I don’t know who I would be if it weren’t for story — whether those books faced censorship or not. “The Little Prince” (banned in France until 1945 because the writer had been exiled). “The Book Thief” (challenged because it portrays details about the Nazis and German people). “An Unnecessary Woman.” “The Golden Notebook.”
All of us are informed by a wide range of human experiences, our own and that of others. So when parents and politicians and school boards want to ban books like “Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice,” or “The Kite Runner,” or when a mayor withholds $110,000 unless LGBTQ books are removed from a Mississippi library, my hair is on fire. And so are many others’. By the end of last year, hundreds of writers, publishers, booksellers, and libraries had condemned the bannings.
Parents with agendas outside of their own homes are often the impetus for pushing politicians. I want to know: Why are you so afraid of ideas?
If you have done your job as a parent, is it not enough to have confidence that you raised a human being capable of thought? Of discernment? Of empathy for something or someone that is not of their experience? Of asking questions and arriving at their own conclusions? Of reading subtext? They will anyway. Maybe it’s time for you to do business with yourself and not with banning books — try reading them instead.
We are entering the third year of a pandemic and isolation, sickness, and loss, and the many other dangers of the world. Is challenging stories that can show us that we read to know we are not alone the best we can do? It feels like we are living in a Felliniesque hallucination.
About six months ago, I switched from working in one grocery store to another. The people who were often the most welcoming to me — a white woman who could have birthed all of them — are my co-workers of color and those who are transgender or LGBTQ.
Their warmth and humor, their sensitivity, stretched the circle of this sometimes closed community so that an outsider could fit in. They had my back — and still do — when I need help with something as basic as lifting a heavy box or bagging a huge order, or listening when I need to vent a frustration. These real people could be characters in many of the books that are currently under siege. They show me the world.
Mary Ann D’Urso’s column appears regularly in the Globe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.