The simple phrase of “book banning” is enough to horrify any avid reader. It conjures up images of bonfires, book burnings and all the hallmarks of censorship. Understandably, book banning is seen as immoral to free speech advocates. The American Library Association reported from January 2022 to August 2022, there have been 681 different challenges directed at 1,651 separate book titles.
To support the freedom to read, the ALA holds Banned Books Week every September. This year it falls on the week of Sept. 18. The organization also publishes a list of the most challenged books of each year, along with the reason for the controversy surrounding each book.
Parents challenged many of the books appearing on these lists were because of perceived political agendas, “divisive content” or “LGBTQIA+ content.” Others were controversial due to parental concerns over sexually explicit or violent material in media for children.
2022 has brought book banning to the forefront of the public’s consciousness with several highly publicized moments. One such incident was the January removal of the graphic novel Maus from a Tennessee school’s curriculum over concerns about the book’s “appropriateness.”
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Maus, written by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel about the Holocaust in which the Jews are depicted as anthropomorphic mice and the Nazis as cats. It is based on Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor. The school board cited “rough language” and a nude drawing as reasons to remove it from the eighth grade English curriculum. This decision sparked a nationwide uproar as people condemned the school board for censoring a book meant to educate children about some of the worst events in history.
The book censors did not stop with Maus, however, and as 2022 went on, more and more incidents sparked anger among the book-reading public. In February, a Tennessee pastor incited his followers to throw copies of Harry Potter and other books with “demonic influences” into a bonfire.
Another well-publicized case centered around the graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, which topped many banned-and-challenged lists because of its depiction of sex. Critics even went as far as to call the book pornographic.
Though on the political spectrum, there is a lot of coverage about book banning attempts from the right, there has also been censorship from the left.
One book that has become the subject of controversy is Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage. Many perceived the book as transphobic because of its skepticism about the increase in young people identifying as transgender. In 2020, the book was removed from Target’s web store after a complaint on Twitter before being reinstated after backlash.
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In 2021, an Amazon employee complained about the book’s availability, and some people disapproved when Amazon refused to remove the book. Chase Santiago, deputy director for transgender justice for The American Civil Liberties Union even tweeted at the time in support of banning Shrier’s book.
Incidents of book banning capture national attention not only because of their opposition to our cultural values of free speech but also because of the deceptively layered moral questions they raise.
How much control should parents have over mature content available in their children’s school libraries? Where is the line between keeping kids’ media age-appropriate and censorship? Who gets to decide what is or is not okay for high school students to access?
Could this kind of discernment devolve into reactionary censorship of content portraying LGBTQ+ people? Who determines which books are available in stores or on Amazon? If a book offends a marginalized group, should it remain accessible? Why, within so many political circles, are some book bans met with controversy while others are applauded?
America prides itself on a culture of civil rights, but it doesn’t seem that book bans are going to go away anytime soon, and nor is the national attention on them. However, this week at least, we should take the time to celebrate the freedom to read.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement condemning Abigail Shrier’s book, “Irreversible Damage.” Chase Strangio, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy director for transgender justice, previously tweeted in favor of stopping circulation of the book. This story has been updated.