Learn exactly why books are being banned by American school boards at massive rates and why books shouldn’t be banned. Hint: when you ban books, there can be a lot of negative consequences, particularly for younger generations.
True story: According to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans, from the school year of July 2021 to June 2022, a staggering 2,532 books were banned (including 1,648 unique book titles) in public schools and public school libraries in the United States. According to PEN America, in the 2022 to 2023 school year, that number rose even further to 3,362 book bans (of 1,557 titles).
By contrast, the social media page of the American Library Association’s office has said that only 223 titles were challenged in the U.S.A. in 2020.
If you’re wondering why public school board meetings and their school officials have become so heavily involved in book challenges recently, this article explores why, along with everything that’s at stake.
Why do books get banned?
Books get banned in middle school and high school curricula for a variety of reasons, often pertaining to different cultures than the local community, as well as diverse experiences and viewpoints, including content with (arguably) offensive language, and/or about sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual assault, people of color, and other sensitive topics.
Some other controversial books that are most often banned are The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (for depictions of sexual abuse and EDI content) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (for sexually explicit content and profanity).
A few more book titles I often hear are banned in lists of books are the New York Times bestseller The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (a “Black Lives Matter” book), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (for racially charged language), and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (which deals with rape). Even books considered to be children’s books for young readers and/or young adults, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.
Often challenging these books to local school boards are religious groups like the Catholic church. Many times, an especially conservative community group also request bans. Some common arguments for book bans are that the material is offensive or inappropriate, or that it will indoctrinate children.
So, should books be banned from schools? My answer is no. Here’s why:
Why Books Shouldn’t Be Banned
Before we talk about why books shouldn’t be banned, I think it’s important to note that my argument is NOT that we should give young children books that are not age-appropriate. I’m talking about books that are widely considered by experts to be at the reading level for the students to whom they are made available.
Likewise, I’m not necessarily talking about what books should or should not be required reading for students. My argument is more based on what’s available in school libraries. Required reading is a related concept that can be worked around, as I discuss below.
Most Americans don’t want book bans.
The first reason why books shouldn’t be banned is because most Americans don’t support book bans. In fact, far more than most Americans don’t support them. And democracy is about freedom and the majority.
Here, the minority of sometimes even one complaint is causing the restriction of access to books, as was the case with Amanda Gorman, who authored and recited the poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. (And, by the way, the complaint didn’t even get her name right — it referred to her as Oprah Winfrey.)
Books are part and parcel of freedom of speech.
Speaking of freedom, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution offers rights that include free speech, free expression, intellectual freedom, and a free society, and this includes books and reading.
Having these freedoms for ourselves means that we also must be present with and co-exist with the freedoms of others, who may be different than us.
And, on the contrary, NOT having these freedoms (and experiencing a variety of expressions, all of which we may not like or agree with) is undeniably better than a society without them.
It’s hard to write this without repeatedly thinking of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai (author of the memoir, I Am Malala), who was shot point-blank by the Taliban for being a female attempting to get an education.
Banned books help students think critically.
The books that are most often banned are exactly the types of books that foster critical thinking. This is because their content is generally “different” in some regard and different things make you think.
Otherwise, it would be like listening to the same song over and over again on repeat. You’d feel like a zombie at a certain point!
But, when you are exposed to different things your brain perks up and gets to work.
You may say, but what if I disagree with what’s said? Well, I’ve often found books with which I disagree to be the ones that made me think most deeply, often for years afterward. They spark a passion that helps me determine exactly where I personally stand on something.
And if, on the other hand, you discover that you DO agree with something new, then you just grew as a person.
Banned books facilitate public discourse.
Public discourse fosters growth on many levels from government to personal.
When I think of public discourse as it pertains to books, I think back to my political science classes in college, in which we would read a text and then debate it.
Again, this is how we learn and grow. It’s hard to discover yourself without ever being exposed to anything new or different and talking about it.
One of my favorite feelings is consuming words that make me think or say, “I never thought of it that way before.” That type of feeling can actually incite change.
Banned books provide access to important information.
An extremely important reason why books shouldn’t be banned is because they provide a gateway to information. This can very well be information that is not accessible any other way to a student, particularly in low-income school districts with underfunded public libraries and also lacking in other resources.
Free access to a new book by way of a public library is often both the best and only resource for information for a person.
I know that, when I have a problem, the first thing I access is quality information to help me solve it, very often through books. On the contrary, living in the dark from helpful information can be incredibly limiting.
Banned books educate and act as helpful learning tools.
We all know that books educate — after all, remain are a primary teaching tool in our highly technological world today.
But, beyond textbooks, one of the best ways to learn is through stories. (Even the Bible contains stories handed down over time and recorded.)
Stories can be easier to grasp AND more memorable. They can also provide a lot more context. At the end of the day, they can help a student more readily move from learning something to understanding it.
Banned books can improve physical and mental health.
Books are often banned for containing content that can actually improve students’ health. While they’re often touted as sexually explicit, for one example, that information can actually help someone by learning facts about their physical and mental health, including both their sexual health and their well-being in general.
One particular book that comes to mind is one that impacted me — Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (who is no stranger to book bans). In the book, she wrote about puberty in a way that was both accessible and helpful to me (and countless others) as a teen.
And, not only did I learn about my body, but I also felt understood.
There are so many other contexts where banned books like this can be beneficial to students, including discovering their sexual and/or gender identity and feeling less alone in any number of ways.
Reading banned books fosters empathy and acceptance.
It’s no secret that reading has innumerable advantages, and this can be especially true when it comes to banned books. This is because books are so often banned because they share diverse experiences, and reading about diverse experiences is exactly what helps us become empathetic and accepting (sometimes even of ourselves).
We live in a diverse world, and book bans very often silence diverse voices. It’s hard to think of anything that can foster more empathy than reading someone’s story, and it’s hard to think of anything more invalidating than banning it.
Banned books can inspire students.
Banned books just may be what inspires students in a way that’s bigger than the book itself.
How do I know? Well, my entire career today is based on falling in love with books at a young age, many of which are considered to be banned.
But even beyond a career in reading and writing, the lesser-discussed viewpoints can introduce students to something that sparks purpose for them.
They can help students become advocates and activists, or even choose a niche for their career. For example, learning about the experiences of teen moms (often considered an inappropriate topic) can inspire someone to work with them upon graduation in any number of fields.
Banned books prepare students for higher education and the real world.
In spending a lot of time considering why books shouldn’t be banned, one point that really stood out to me is that books bans can hold students back when they get to college and/or go out into “the real world.” Not only can not reading certain texts impact the ability of a student to gain acceptance to certain programs, but even if these students are accepted, they may struggle to learn at the level and speed of other students who did.
For example, I know from my own experience that, when I studied literature in college, I was always grateful when we were assigned to read something in my English class with which I was already familiar. It felt like I was already one step ahead! And, of course, in the opposite scenario, the opposite was true.
Likewise, students who were subjected to book bans can also struggle in the real world in a number of forms, including understanding the experiences of others and working alongside them (colleagues, clients, customers, and beyond). These sheltered students may also struggle to perform at expected levels, since reading helps to foster so many skills, including communication and writing.
Book bans can begin a slippery slope.
The “slippery slope” argument is also worth noting as a reason why books shouldn’t be banned. In practice, regulating the subject matter of content to which a certain age group should be exposed is a difficult task.
For example, banning books involving certain explicit content (such as graphic violence and sexual content, in their many forms) can effectively pertain to textbooks, sexual health information, and religious texts as well.
So, who then becomes the arbiter of each and every word to which young people are exposed in schools, and when does it end?
There’s no easy answer and, in fact, the slippery slope may even slide its way from banning books not originally intended to be banned.
Book bans have scary consequences when it comes to the government.
I’ve already referenced freedom of speech, but to add to that point, book bans can enable more unlawful conduct by the government, including abuse of power and discrimination.
While proponents of book bans often argue that books cause indoctrination, quite the opposite is true. History has shown us time and time again that governmental control of information and the limiting of viewpoints is what has allowed horrific events like genocide to occur.
Also, it bears noting that book bans are often improperly used not to protect children but as a political game piece to garner votes for a particular politician.
There are reasonable alternatives to book banning.
The final reason why books shouldn’t be banned is that they aren’t necessary. There are many other workable solutions by which parental rights are respected and they can manage their own lives and their own children.
For example, parents can become involved in monitoring and approving their children’s library books, and even “required reading” can be made optional with alternative assignments. These types of measures may also spark meaningful conversation about the books and why they were chosen.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, this is not about forcing students to consume content, and it’s not about content that experts deem objectionable for a particular age.
It’s about the availability of content, particularly since so often, book bans are a guise for silencing diverse voices.
Take Action Against Book Bans
Now that you know why books shouldn’t be banned, you may want to take action. This is something I’m admittedly still working on myself (and thus, will continue to update this section as I learn new things). Here are a few ways we can help:
- I just learned that my state senate is considering a ban on banned books, so I’m going to look into getting involved with that.
- I also regularly donate to Unite Against Banned Books and participate in Clear the List campaigns.
- I have spent a lot of time educating myself and sharing the messaging against them with my readers, and I especially support Banned Books Week as well.
- Lastly, I love to read and share banned books and recommend you do the same, as it keeps their words alive. Below are some of my personal favorite banned books from the American Library Association’s recent list of most commonly banned books to get you started.
If you don’t have anything of your own to share, feel free to share this post and/or these posts about banned books to get started: