What’s Really Behind Book Bans?

stack of books locked up, for article on book bans

Books have been called both windows and mirrors. Mirror books reflect the familiar – how we look, what we see around us, what we know and connect with in ourselves and our own communities. Window books open the world to us, helping us find larger connections by learning about new ideas, cultures, people and places. Both types of books are important. However, State Superintendent of Education Ryan Walters wants to hide the books in school libraries that don’t reflect him – a heterosexual, white, Christian male. That’s a narrow reflection of a narrow mind. Mr. Walter’s attack on books is an attack on education, on public schools and teachers.

This isn’t just happening in Oklahoma. According to Unite Against Book Bans (uniteagainstbookbans.org), there were 1,269 attempts to ban library books in 2022, higher than any time since the American Library Association began compiling data more than 20 years ago. Unite Against Book Bans is a campaign organized by the American Library Association.

It is probably no surprise that most of the complaints are about books that have LGBQTIA+  characters or are written by LGBQTIA+ people or people of color. There goes the mirror for individuals who think, look or act differently than Ryan Walters. No doubt books by and about people who look and think like he does would not be hidden in the “danger” section or removed entirely from schools. Books identified as pornographic or developmentally inappropriate for children and adolescents would be put out of reach. But who decides what all children should read? Who would be identifying the offending books? School librarians and teachers are not using books (or anything else) to indoctrinate kids.

Book Bans and Oklahoma Legislation

Fortunately, Walters is getting some push-back from legislators who say he cannot make up his own rules. The legislature makes laws not the state school board. (That hasn’t stopped Walters from suggesting all kinds of wacky stuff. Follow him on twitter and watch the videos he takes in his car. Or the odd pictures he posts like the one of the three girls in a bathroom. I don’t understand that one at all.)

The OK Senate, however, also has jumped on the book-banning bandwagon by passing SB 397, which now goes to the House. The culture wars fear-mongering moves to Oklahoma public libraries, where a vaguely identified committee would comb through stacks of library books to identify vaguely defined scary ones that need to be censored. Again, a direct attack on LGBQTIA+ individuals and people of color.

Lessons from History

I just got back from visiting my daughter in Washington, D.C. It’s such a beautiful city, and I was so proud to be an American as I toured the monuments and museums dedicated to the ideals of this country. One of the most moving museums I visited was the Holocaust Museum. It describes the rise and reign of Hitler, who was without a doubt homophobic and racist. One of his early actions was book banning/burning. Many didn’t take it seriously. But it was serious. Banning books took away people’s freedom to have a window onto the world – they were limited to a mirror. Hitler’s mirror.

We must not make the mistake of repeating history under the guise of protecting our children from discomfort or from being exposed to values and ideas that are different from our own. When I taught literature in high school and college, students only benefitted from reading and learning about people, places and ideas that were new to them. Parents and teachers can use children’s questions as teachable moments – read with your child. Discuss what your teens are reading with them.

Other Considerations

If you don’t want your child to read a book, or if you want to review books your child is reading, most schools and school libraries have a process in place to do that on an individual basis. No group should be able to dictate to other parents what their children should and should not read.

As Unite Against Banned Books states on their website:

  • Books are tools for understanding complex issues.
  • Young people deserve to see themselves reflected in a library’s books.
  • Parents should not be making decision for other parents’ children.
  • Individuals should be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read.
  • Limiting young people’s access to books does not protect them from life’s complex and challenging issues.

All of this ignores that little computer that almost every kid has in their pocket – their smart phone. Kids and teens can access anything they want on those phones. Rather than wasting time on a fake problem of trying to keep kids in K-12 from reading, maybe the state should work on enacting a K-12 digital literacy curriculum where students learn how to recognize disinformation campaigns, and how to think critically. Other countries are doing it. Here’s an article about Finland’s digital literacy curriculum: theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/28/fact-from-fiction-finlands-new-lessons-in-combating-fake-news

The Real Issue isn’t Book Bans

So, what is this book-banning nonsense really about? It’s certainly not about protecting kids from reading materials. Could it be that a made-up problem deflects from the fact that students and teachers are struggling? Schools are still underfunded. Teachers are under attack. Vouchers are looming on the horizon ready to scrape millions away from public schools.

News 4 KFOR in Oklahoma City reported on public school employee resignations so far this spring: Edmond, 150; OKC, 329 resignations as of March 6; Moore, 196. The station quoted Oklahoma Education Association President Katherine Bishop as saying, “We are in a crisis. We are in a workforce crisis and lack personnel, teachers, support professional, administrators.”

That is what is hurting our children. Not books.


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Categories: Editor’s Blog