From Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, book banning has a long history in the U.S. But while literary challenges are nothing new, the issue has reached fever pitch in recent years. And the hotbed is right here in Texas.
The Lone Star state leads the nation in book bans in classrooms and school libraries, according to PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for freedom of expression. Between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, the group tallied a total of 800 book bans in schools across Texas. Compare that to states like Alaska, Maryland, or Maine for instance, which saw just one book removed from school shelves over the same period.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area has been a war zone in the book banning battle. Last October, Fort Worth state Rep. Matt Krause asked schools to report whether they had more than 800 books about racism, gender and sexuality on their shelves. Then this fall, Keller Independent School District made national headlines for removing 41 books—including the Bible— before the first day of school. And most recently, a battle over displaying LBGTQ books has simmered at the Arlington Public Library.
“The number of books that are being challenged and banned in Texas is unprecedented,” says Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association. “And that increase is a direct reflection of the very divisive times we are living in.”
Proponents for removing certain books from libraries, particularly in schools, cite worries that content could be dangerous or inappropriate for children. Those arguing to keep books on shelves maintain that everyone has the right to free inquiry and the equally important right to form their own opinions.
So what does the issue really mean for parents and how does it affect your family? Here’s the story on banned books.
What is a book ban and how is it different than a book challenge?
A challenge is a request to remove or restrict materials from a library or classroom. Depending on a district or library’s policy, challenged books may or may not remain in circulation while undergoing review.
A ban is the potential outcome of a book challenge, and means that the material has been removed from the classroom or library. PEN America defines a school book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content … that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”
Why is this such an issue?
The debate around which books belong in school classrooms and libraries picked up steam following the pandemic. “Parents became more involved with their children’s learning during that time,” says Auguste Meyrat, a writer and English teacher in the DFW area. “They noticed how much the texts have changed and started investigating what other books were being taught or available for checkout at the school library.”
Meyrat says that in the 15 years he’s been teaching, he saw a trend in textbooks and novels beginning to feature “more mature themes that might upset parents.”
“If we’re talking about much younger readers, I think we need to be very careful just what ideas we share with them,” he says.
But Lucy Podmore, chair of the Texas Association of School Librarians, isn’t convinced that concerned parents are at the center of those pushing for bans. Instead, she says, it seems to be more political in nature. “When you have people at a school board meeting reading aloud the most graphic three sentences of a 400-page book, taken out of context, that’s harmful,” she says. “And it seems to be a coordinated effort.”
Among the books most frequently removed from Texas schools is “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe that chronicles the author’s journey to identifying as nonbinary and asexual. The memoir is explicit in places, and covers topics like gender confusion, sexual identity, unsettling sexual encounters and sexual fantasies.
Another is Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a story about an 11-year-old Black girl who yearns to have lighter skin and blue eyes. The novel touches on many themes, including rape, incest, domestic violence, alcoholism, infant mortality, and racism.
“It’s already hard enough to be a kid, and books offer an escape and a place to find community.”
Those may seem like shocking topics, but Podmore emphasizes that when building collections, librarians are trained to select literature that represents the entire community—not a select few. She says students should not only see themselves represented in books, but the larger community, including people with different life experiences than their own.
“Censoring books that explore the real-life experiences of often marginalized communities by arguing that these lived experiences are somehow ‘inappropriate’ can have long-term consequences on a child,” Robinson agrees. “It’s already hard enough to be a kid, and books offer an escape and a place to find community. Literature opens a child’s mind to new ideas and different worlds, helping them to become more empathetic, curious, and open-minded.”
What if you don’t want your child to read certain books?
It’s understandable that there are some topics parents might not want their children exposed to, or that they’d want to explore together. But seeking to outright ban a book is not the right approach, librarians say.
“Every parent has a right to regulate what their own child reads,” says Podmore. “But they shouldn’t be regulating that for families that might be different than them. Your decisions should impact your child, but they shouldn’t impact everyone else’s child.”
When it comes to book challenges in Texas public libraries, policies are set by their governing authority. If patrons submit a formal request for a reconsideration, the library director reviews the request along with the material to determine whether it meets the collection policy criteria.
School districts have similar policies. In the Dallas Independent School District, for example, formally challenged materials are reviewed by a committee of administrators, staff and members of the school community.
But Podmore says that in most cases, parents’ issues can be settled without a formal challenge. “People want to be heard when they say, ‘I don’t think this is appropriate for my child,’” she says. “The parent and I and the principal have a conversation, and we try to settle it at that level.”
In Dallas, the principal may offer a student an alternative instructional resource to be used in place of the challenged resource. And some districts will make notes in a student’s circulation account that allow the librarian or aide to see a parent’s request when the child is checking out books.
How should you approach ‘banned books’ with your kids?
Podmore agrees that some of the content in the most frequently challenged books is shocking or painful to read.
“If something doesn’t feel right, that’s the time when you have a conversation, and the conversation needs to be between the parent and child,” she says. “Absolutely, a parent can decide, this isn’t right for my child.”
But Podmore also says that reading a book is “the safest place” for children to experience things they might not otherwise see, hear, or feel; increasing their empathy and understanding of different views.
“The best thing a parent can do is be prepared to have these crucial conversations, share their own family values and answer their child’s questions.”
Or, she says, a book could be the place where they finally feel seen. “Maybe that reader no longer feels ashamed or alone,” she says. “Someone can read a book and say, ‘yes that happened to me.’”
If your child expresses an interest in a book that’s often challenged or banned, it could be a double opportunity for discussion. First, it can open a dialogue around topics that can sometimes be hard to broach, like sex, sexuality, racism or mental illness. And second, you can talk about why some people might find it troubling. Ask them, what did people find so disturbing in a book that they wanted to ban it? This can help your kids define their own values and opinions of its content.
“This offers a great opportunity for parents to engage with their kids and have a conversation on the reasons why they should or should not read a certain book,” Robinson says. “The best thing a parent can do is be prepared to have these crucial conversations, share their own family values and answer their child’s questions.”
This article was originally published in December 2022.
Image by Reneé Higgins