In her best-selling novel Speak, author Laurie Halse Anderson wrote, “Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.” Since the American Library Association (ALA) and Association of American Publishers helped launch Banned Books Week 40 years ago, that dysfunctional family of censorship has unfortunately grown larger and more vociferous. Across the U.S., the past year has brought a staggering increase in book challenges, bans and other attacks on the right to read and academic freedom.
Most efforts to curtail access to books involve younger readers at schools and public libraries. There are recurrent themes to such challenges that result in the muting of voices from outside the so-called “mainstream” of American society. According to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the top 10 most challenged books in recent years are by or about marginalized peoples, including people of color and LGBTQ authors and characters.
Last spring, PEN America published findings from its first-ever Index of School Book Bans, a comprehensive count of more than 1,500 instances of books banned by some 86 school districts in 26 states, between July 2021 and March 2022, impacting more than 2 million students. The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported fielding 729 book challenges in 2021 alone, targeting nearly 1,600 titles. At both organizations, the number of reports received are only a fraction of the total; many result in books being removed from shelves without fanfare or public knowledge, and often under a cloud of fear among librarians and staff.
This rise in censorship comes at a time when the U.S. is in the throes of a larger moral panic epitomized by a corrosive “cancel culture” that spans the political spectrum from right to left.
Challenges to books are not the only issue facing students and our schools. There has also been an increase in legislative efforts to curtail curriculum, controlling what can and cannot be taught, in at least 36 states. Another PEN America study, “America’s Censored Classrooms,” measured a 250-percent increase over the past year in what the study refers to as educational gag orders, state legislative efforts to restrict “teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities in K – 12 and higher education.” All of the bills were launched by Republicans in their respective states, with only one Democratic sponsor among them. While many in the GOP denounce cancel culture on the left, they seem to be perfectly fine controlling what can be read, discussed and taught in the nation’s schools.
Although the country is divided on many topics and issues, canceling views or perspectives with which one disagrees is not the solution. Children should not be taught to fear ideas different than their own. Celebrate Banned Books Week Sept. 18-24, but stay vigilant and keep reading banned books all year.