The book banners are back -- louder and more aggressive than ever.
Adults raising alarms about young people's access to certain books have existed for generations. More recently, the movement to censor books has gotten a big boost from the conservative, political right, with Republicans passing laws criminalizing educators for making certain books available to students.
The number of book bans nationwide this school year is on track to top last year's record total, according to the American Library Association.
In Missouri, a new state law banning "explicit sexual material" -- defined as any visual depiction of sex acts or genitalia, with exceptions for artistic or scientific significance -- went into effect at the end of August and applies to both public and private schools. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that at least 97 books have been banned in schools across St. Louis this fall, covering topics like anatomy, photography and the Holocaust.
Back in the '80s and '90s, one of my favorite books was frequently challenged by parents and targeted for removal from schools. "Bridge to Terabithia" is ninth on the ALA's list of 100 books most commonly banned from schools between the years 1990-2000. The poignant story about childhood friendship was targeted because of swearing and references to witchcraft and atheism.
That Newbery Medal-winning story failed to turn me into an atheist.
I think back to the other "inappropriate" content I read as a tween and teen, along with many of my peers. The bestselling series "Flowers in the Attic" by V.C. Andrews did not normalize incest for our generation. Stephen King's novel "It" did not turn me into a homicidal clown (although it did change the way I looked at clowns forever). I read Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather," which is filled with graphic sexual and violent content, as a young teenager. It failed to make me join the mob.
In middle school, I read "Are You In the House Alone?" by Richard Peck, a novel about a teenage girl stalked by a stranger who ends up raping her. It scared the hell out of me.
Looking back, I may have been too young to read it. But it was on my seventh grade language arts teacher's bookshelf, and she encouraged my habit of reading four to five books a week. I'm glad she fostered that independence and critical thinking.
I'm willing to bet that many of the parents now clutching their pearls about "inappropriate material" read a few of these same books as kids. And I wonder if the people who feel so threatened by works of literature are the very same people crying about "cancel culture."
Meanwhile, for an example of actual cancel culture, look to Oklahoma: The state's top education official wants a high school English teacher's certification revoked because she shared with her students a QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library's banned books collection. And in Montana, several books riddled with gunshot holes were returned to a library, presumably to intimidate librarians. After the incident, all branches of the county's library closed temporarily.
In the land of the free, some books have become so scary and threatening that librarians and teachers must remove them from their shelves under the threat of imprisonment.
My parents, who are conservative Muslims and raised me with very strict rules, never once monitored what I read.
When I looked at the ALA's list of the 10 most challenged books in 2021, I discovered three that I've read: "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie and "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison. I found each of them on my daughter's bookshelf, among the many books she read in high school.
None of them corrupted or harmed her in any way.
In fact, reading them enriched her worldview.
Those trying to ban these books ought to read them instead.