My favorite book in elementary school was about a life-altering friendship between two fifth graders who created an imaginary world in the woods to escape their day-to-day troubles.
"Bridge to Terabithia" by Katherine Paterson won the Newbery Medal in 1978, an honor awarded to the most distinguished children's books. Generations of readers made it a beloved classic. It was also one of the most frequently challenged books targeted for removal from libraries and schools through the '90s and early 2000s.
Adults objected to language they considered offensive, including a character's use of "lord" outside of prayer, and claimed the book promoted witchcraft and violence. The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant reported in 2002 that residents petitioned a school board to ban the book in order to "eliminate the study of materials containing information about witchcraft, magic, evil spells, or related material now and forever. We believe this material is satanic, a danger to our children, is being studied excessively, and has no place in our schools."
Paterson is the child of Christian missionaries, spent time as a missionary herself and married a Presbyterian minister.
People have found reasons to get worked up about certain kinds of books for longer than anyone reading this has been alive.
The most recent swell of censorship, however, has a pernicious twist. Conservatives' fervor over "critical race theory," which is not taught in public elementary or secondary schools, has intensified to the point where they've started passing laws banning certain ideas and discussions. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill stating that teachers cannot "require or make part of a course" a series of race-related concepts. The law is written vaguely enough that school districts have used it to essentially fire a Black principal, discipline a teacher for having an award-winning book by a Black author in her classroom, and advise teachers they need books about "both sides" of the Holocaust on their shelves.
Principal James Whitfield, the first Black principal at Colleyville High School in the Dallas area, wrote a letter to the school community in the summer of 2020 when the country was roiled in protests about the police murder of George Floyd.
"Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate and systemic racism," he wrote. That letter seems to have led to accusations that he was pushing critical race theory in school. The school has never taught that, nor has he ever publicly supported it, Whitfield said. The school board placed him on administrative leave anyway.
The rising anxiety about children being taught about the country's racist past is reflected in the American Library Association's annual Top 10 Most Challenged Books list. On the 2020 list, the No. 2 book is "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You" by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. In fact, the majority of books on the list were written by people of color.
Now, it's not enough to ban ideas that make certain adults uncomfortable. They also want to fire the educators who dare to say the word "racism" inside of a school?
This approach makes me wonder if they have met any kids lately.
Young people are most interested in seeing whatever you don't want them to see. You can't stop them from using the internet, and their most popular social media sites are filled with activism around race and social justice issues.
The children who are denied a complete understanding of our country's history and how it impacts our current state of affairs will grow up with major blind spots and gaps in their understanding. They will eventually find out the truths that adults tried to keep from them.
It will only magnify the culture of distrust and division in our society.
When officials at Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, canceled a talk by Nikole Hannah-Jones -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who conceived The 1619 Project -- that had been scheduled for Black History Month next year, students protested and walked out of their classes. I wonder how many teenagers who hadn't been interested in The 1619 Project before Googled it when the school caved to local pressure and canceled the talk.
The people up in arms about schools teaching kids about racism obviously want children who share their same worldview.
They might win the censorship battles, but they are going to lose the war.