Bewildering book bans

Rebecca Gonzales

A parent in the Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah, sent out an email in November requesting certain books be removed from school library shelves because of concerns about their content. This resulted in nine books, which discuss issues such as gender, race and sexuality, being taken out of circulation while being reviewed, according to district spokesperson Jeff Haney.

Diverse books are often the target of censorship in school libraries.
Diverse books are often the target of censorship in school libraries. Photo credit: Rebecca Gonzales

Book banning isn’t exclusive to Utah. This fall, there has been a surge of book censorship attempts across the country, from Texas to Ohio.

September 2021 saw a 60% increase in book challenges compared to September 2020, says a report from the American Library Association.

Richard Price, associate professor of political science at Weber State University and censorship specialist, along with other experts, said this recent phenomenon is due to an “anti-diversity push” that ultimately harms young readers’ development of empathy and deprives them of the positive effects of reading diverse literature.

In response to Canyons’ decision, The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah released a statement of opposition on the basis of First Amendment rights, saying, “Officials at Canyons School District appear to have disregarded their standard process for reviewing content” and removed these books without following established guidelines.

“Constitutional protections cannot simply be ignored,” the statement said.

Price said this anti-diversity push is a response to anxiety among conservative leaders caused by certain major events from the past couple years, such as the Black Lives Matter protests and mask and vaccine mandates.

Another factor, Price said, is the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” which is an initiative, started in 2019, to reframe U.S. history by “placing the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans at the very center” of the country’s narrative, according to the project’s web page. A book based on the initiative was published in November.

This initiative, along with the ongoing debate regarding critical race theory, “triggered a ton of anxiety from especially conservative parents who were uncomfortable with the idea that their kid would be taught that racial oppression was part of the American story,” Price said.

The American Library Association publishes a list every year of the top 10 most challenged books, and Price said the books that dominate the list are queer-inclusive or about race, “because those are two issues that concern a lot of parents” and are the narratives “they’re most uncomfortable with.”

The list of books removed from Canyons School District shelves includes “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel that discusses sexual orientation and gender identity. The book has also recently caused controversy in other states.

Another book from the list, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, has been the subject of recent scrutiny after a video of the parent of a Texas student lobbying for its removal at a school board meeting due to sexual content and profanity went viral on TikTok in September.

The book is a coming-of-age tale about a young American man of Mexican descent who becomes disillusioned with capitalism and the American dream.

Reading books about diverse topics is essential for young readers to develop empathy, Megan Van Deventer said.
Reading books about diverse topics is essential for young readers to develop empathy, Megan Van Deventer said. Photo credit: Rebecca Gonzales

In a blog post, Evison explained that the main character of the novel has a sexual experience as a child that shapes aspects of his adulthood, and that proponents of banning the book are missing important context. Evison also defended the book’s crude language, saying that it’s realistic language for the cynical main character.

Evison explained that the book was not meant for young audiences, and that it likely got confused with a children’s book of the same name. Still, as more and more people viewed the video, he received threats and messages accusing him of pedophilia.

“I am quite confident that not a single person threatening me or lobbying to ban my book even read a single passage of ‘Lawn Boy’ beyond those few isolated passages read on the TikTok video,” Evison wrote.

Evison said Americans are up against a “streak of anti-intellectualism that runs so deep in America that people feel they no longer need to inform themselves before they make the decision to ban a book.”

Price said they often observe the same thing happening: Someone challenges a book at a school board meeting, using decontextualized passages as fearmongering. The video of the speech is shared online, inspiring dozens of others across the country to go to do the same thing, knowing nothing about the book besides what was presented in the video.

These proponents of book banning are often resistant to generational change and social progress, Price said. They have observed that most book challenges come out of suburbs that used to be predominantly white, but are now more diverse and less conservative.

“People who have grown up there, they’re really uncomfortable with that,” Price said. These individuals resist this cultural and societal shift by attempting to limit students’ access to more diverse and inclusive material, they said.

These conservative parents often utilize the narrative of parental rights, saying that they want to censor books available through school libraries to protect their children.

Price disagrees with this sentiment. “The choice is to not read it yourself,” they said, “not to prohibit it for everyone else.”

Book censorship is not without its negative effects on students.

According to Megan Van Deventer, assistant professor of English and expert in children’s literature, books act both as mirrors, which reflect one’s own identity, and as windows, which give insight into what life is like for others.

Censored shelves present a conservative view of the world that doesn’t reflect the realities of difficult topics such as race, sexuality and gender.

Reading about diverse people and experiences is crucial for children and adolescents to develop empathy. Young readers “will rise to the occasion of understanding the wide breadth of people that we share the world with,” Van Deventer said.

Megan Van Deventer compared books to voth mirrors and windows.
Megan Van Deventer compared books to both mirrors and windows. Photo credit: Rebecca Gonzales

Price said conservative parents are ultimately afraid that “reading about other people’s experience will make that kid more empathetic about those experiences.”

According to Van Deventer, books that reflect the diversity of the real world should not be cause for contention.

“We absolutely have to realize that identities are not controversial,” she said. “These book bannings don’t take away who the student is or the experiences that they’re really having in the real world.”

In addition to learning empathy, books are an opportunity for young readers to affirm their own identities and see examples of other people like them.

“These young readers live multifaceted lives,” Van Deventer said. “Their entire lived experiences and the ways that they navigate the world are not always reflected in the books that are available on the shelf if they have been censored.”

However, there are some instances when Van Deventer feels it’s necessary to remove books from library shelves. For example, she recently worked with Davis School District to remove a 1983 book called “Thanksgiving Day” that contained inaccurate and harmful stereotypes about Native Americans.

“We’ve made some mistakes,” she said.

She recommended taking ownership of these mistakes, listening to marginalized voices and removing books that perpetuate harm through a process in which multiple stakeholders look at and examine the book.

Van Deventer stressed the importance of finding balance in these censorship discussions.

“We need more voices,” she said. “The voices currently that are loud and booming and asking for books to be removed tend to be one-sided.”

Above all, Van Deventer emphasized the value of inclusivity on library shelves.

“The library serves everyone,” Van Deventer said. “The library is for all.”