Have you ever read a book that made you feel like someone took your inner thoughts and expressed them in a way you never could? A book that challenged you to think about things from a different perspective? A book that made you feel less alone during a difficult time?
Books really can do all these things. The written word is beautiful and important, and part of that beauty is that books encompass many styles and topics. One genre may appeal to me, while you might prefer a very different type of book. That’s okay! Nobody has to like them all, and nobody has to read them all. But limiting what is available to read? That’s not okay. I cannot believe it is 2022, and book banning – even book burning in our own state! – is still a thing.
There are common themes among frequently-challenged books: they often have something to do with racism or the LGBTQIA+ community. But banning a book isn’t going to keep your kids from talking or thinking about these topics. They will continue to talk about them even if you snatch these books away from them, but you’ll be depriving them of access to literature that might help them through a rough time. They may even seek a book out because you’ve tried to keep them from them.
A book might literally save the life of an LGBTQIA+ teen who feels completely lost and alone while figuring out how to tell their parents who they really are. LGBTQIA+ youth are four times more likely to consider suicide. What if access to a relatable book could help change that? I sure would want that for any person I know who is struggling through a difficult time.
Several oft-challenged LGBTQIA+ books are written for a young audience. Picture books like I Am Jazz, And Tango Makes Three, and Prince & Knight all made the 2019 top 10 list of banned books. In full disclosure, I have not read these books with my younger kids. I don’t feel like they are quite ready to discuss these topics. That said, I believe books like these are very important; all children should have access to books with characters who represent their own lives and family units. Just because I choose to wait a little longer to read these with my family doesn’t mean I would want them removed from my library or bookstore.
We HAVE read the challenged book Red: A Crayon’s Story, about a crayon whose wrapper is red on the outside, but when it writes, the color always comes out as blue. It’s a subtle way to begin teaching that one’s outsides may not always match their insides. It’s a beautiful story with an important message that it’s okay to be different.
A Tennessee district recently made national news by removing Maus from an 8th-grade curriculum. Maus is a Pulitzer prize-winning book that reaches young audiences with its graphic novel style, teaching them about an important history lesson in a way they can understand. Many students read Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl at some point. Some people are more visual learners, so a graphic novel might click with them more easily than Anne Frank’s diary entries. To be honest, I’m more uncomfortable reading a girl’s private journal entries without her permission than a graphic novel written by the son of a Holocaust survivor.
Maus is not supposed to be a feel-good story: it’s about the genocide of 6 million Jews. There’s no way to neatly tell this story without some chilling descriptions. But we need to remember this isn’t a book that educators were assigning to 2nd graders. This was an 8th-grade assignment, and that age is absolutely equipped to handle this topic. The stuff kids are seeing on TikTok and Snapchat should be concerning all of us way more than this book.
It’s notable that the most commonly challenged books of 2020 involved racism, as the news headlines featured stories about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Ibram X. Xendi and Jason Reynolds was challenged because it “did not encompass racism against all people.” Another Jason Reynolds book took the number 3 spot because it was “too much of a sensitive matter right now.”
Books that highlight racism are supposed to make you think and feel. They aren’t meant to be “light” reads. Racism isn’t a happy subject. They deliberately bring up tough issues and questions, pushing you outside of your comfort zone to examine things from other perspectives. There’s a reason Toni Morrison has won so many awards, including the Nobel Prize. Her work is treasured by many because she tells stories that represent the real lives of Black Americans. That’s what makes her writing so good and so important.
To me, the best books leave you thinking long after you finish reading them. As a white mother, I think it’s my responsibility to make sure I do the work to examine my own white privilege and biases and teach my children about racism — not just racism as something in the past in terms of slavery, but the very different and unfair ways our Black brothers and sisters are treated today. That’s why books like Stamped are so critical. (I highly recommend listening to this one as an audiobook if you can; hearing Jason Reynolds read it himself is great.)
I reached out to Facing History and Ourselves, an amazing organization that uses history lessons to challenge teachers and students to stand up to bigotry and hate. Marti Tippens Murphy, executive director of our local chapter, shared her thoughts on recent book bannings:
“We have been doing this work for the past 45 years, and we have never experienced a moment like this. We are seeing elected officials using their power to silence history, and we should all be on high alert. The good news is that education is an antidote to racism, anti-semitism ,and bigotry. We need much more of it, not less.”
Nobody is forcing you to read these books. If you have an issue with an assigned book in your child’s class, feel free to take it up with the teacher and request an alternate option for your child. But please, first think about why the teacher might have assigned this particular book, and definitely read the book first. If the topic at hand is offensive to you, consider how sometimes hearing/reading opposing views can actually help you better understand why you believe what you do. Your beliefs and values don’t have to change just because you read a book.
Bottom line: if you don’t want your child to read a certain book, that’s your call. Tell them what’s off limits. But don’t try to prevent every other kid from reading a book just because you don’t want yours to read it.