Written by Finnialla, one of our current world events writers, and edited by Kayla-Jane, one of our editors!
American politics is a truly and utterly weird place. In a bizarre senate hearing over Illinois’ law to ban book bans this past week, Senator John Kennedy from Kentucky decided to read excerpts from two books. The awkward ordeal was probably the worst thing I’ve had to hear with my own two ears this entire year, but beyond an old man taking a sexual abuse scene in a book and disrespecting it with his terrible read aloud, Kennedy’s actions have a sinister double motive.
The first was from “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, an explosive memoir that touches on growing up as a black gay man. It speaks to racism and homophobia and explores hard topics such as sexual assault and informed consent.
The other was “Genderqueer” by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel memoir that talks about being non-binary and asexual in a world that is less than accepting. Maia, who is non-binary and uses e/em pronouns, talks about queer childhoods and gender dysphoria growing up in a straight, cisgender world.
The argument went back and forth, between the side fighting for parental rights in schools and the ones advocating for allowing kids and teachers to decide what kids wanted to read, but there were many voices missing, mostly actual students. While some college kids were there for anti-censorship, the people whose voice and education is being changed were not present. But how did we get here, where a US senate is arguing about what children are reading? Let’s start at the beginning.
THE RISE TO POWER
Book bans are nothing new. Honestly, since the beginning of written stories, people have been trying to get others to stop reading them. People were put to death in different parts of history for possessing the wrong book. From the Middle Ages to Nazis to even the Satanic Panic, the “Moral Majority” tried to decide what others could read.
This particular rise of far-right politics is hard to trace. It could be from the most recent president not condemning white supremacy, or even the run of former president Barack Obama. Was it always lurking in the shadows from the Bush administration, or Reagan? Probably, in a sense. The only thing most Americans would like is that in the last five years, political shifts have grown larger, and more fringe voices have been getting louder, and with that, so do the people policing morals.
For a long time, books were challenged on a case-by-case basis, but that is not the reality anymore. Allison Lee, the Los Angeles director of PEN America told the LA Times how the landscape has changed. “large swaths of books, sometimes even entire school or classroom libraries are being removed.” Now more than ever, more books are being challenged and kids are losing the right to read ones that might open their eyes or question parts of themselves.
2023 SCHOOL YEAR
In the United States, kids have been going back to school for the past month. Since the reinstatement of in-person learning after the pandemic in 2021, book bans have been a staple at school board meetings and local city council shouting sessions. According to Pen America, a center fighting for the rights of literature in the United States for the last 100 years found in their study that, “During the first half of the 2022-2023 school year PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned...”
The idea of book bans is not a new thing, far from it, but the United States seems to be having a renaissance of it. Again, from PEN America, “That is more instances of book banning than recorded in either the first or second half of the 2021-22 school year.” In certain states, book banning has become a common occurrence. In 2022, according to CNN and the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, Texas was the book-banning capital of the U.S. In the same vein, they talk about Florida, the second most frequent book ban state and the state with the highest average of challenged titles with each attempt, an average of 28 books.
In no surprising fashion, books banned are disproportionately POC and queer narratives. PEN America speaks on this too, “In this six-month period, 30% of the unique titles banned are books about race, racism, or feature characters of color. Meanwhile, 26% of unique titles banners have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.” The ALA, (American Library Association for Intellectual Freedom) lists this year's 13 most challenged books. The two most popular banned books are, no surprise, “Genderqueer” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
Not only are minority voices being silenced, but the subject leans into banning topics as sexual violence, suicide, drug use, and alcoholism. PEN America finds that 44% of all challenged books deal with some kind of violence and physical abuse, 30% deal with grief, and 17% deal with teen pregnancy or sexual assault. The problem is that students face all of these problems above.
Banning access to stories that tell their story in a way that might help them or not make them feel like it’s their fault could lead to isolation.
PARENTS AND POLITICS
The movement has riled up parents, who have made their opinions, both for and against certain books, very loudly at school board meetings. Even so, there has been one group that everyone should watch closely: Moms for Liberty.
Tiffany Justice, one of the co-founders of Moms of Liberty, has this to say about the book challenges, speaking to CNN, “Moms for Liberty does not ‘ban’ books. Write the book, print the book, sell the book. School is for age-appropriate material meant to educate children.” I want to take issue with this statement.
Books are not just meant to make us feel good, they are there to challenge our preconceived notion of who we are. Not letting kids understand gender and sexuality, or even to learn about subjects like sexual abuse, how do we expect them to understand it when they are adults? Many of these books are in high school age and above libraries and while they might talk about certain sensitive subjects, is it better to learn about it than to walk into life without a reference point of what it might look like?
From the rise of challenges comes severe policy, none more known than Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill. Its policy of banning what the state deems “sexualized” content from K-3rd graders has now been moved to all K-12 grades and could soon affect public colleges. Because of this, any person can deem any book specialized and can start the process of getting it removed from shelves.
While Texas and Florida lead the country with the number of book challenges, almost all have had some sort of grassroots effort on book challenges, and lawmakers in one state are pushing back.
The Illinois Secretary of State and State Librarian, Alexi Giannoulias has recently called to make a ban book-banning bill, making it harder for anyone to challenge the curriculum in school. This received instant backlash from republican lawmakers and groups like the aforementioned Moms of Liberty.
And that’s how we ended up where we started, with a U.S Senator giving the country the worst audiobook sample of all time. The Senate committee called these Illinois lawmakers and other anti-book ban activists to Capitol Hill so they could talk about the infringement of rights for parents.
Alex spoke on the floor about the danger of book bans. He says in a back and forth with lawmakers, “Our libraries have become targets by a movement that disingenuously claims to pursue freedom but is instead promoting authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes ban books, not democracies.” He then goes on to talk about the rights parents do have when it comes to their kids. “Of course, there are books that are not age appropriate. But that’s what being a parent is all about – doing your best to keep an eye on what your children read and what they consume.”
While some lawmakers try to stop book bans, others actively encourage it. No surprise, Ron DeSantis spoke at a Moms for Liberty event in June. Others support the idea of book bans, like far-right politicians Margorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebart under the guise of protecting children. The hypocrisy from these people who party with high school students as a teacher (DeSantis), to vaping and inappropriate touching during a Broadway performance (Boebart), to telling school shooting victims they were lying (Greene) is astounding. The ones who claim to protect children have no problem hurting them when it pleases their narrative.
Whether it's book challenges or bans, the result is the same. It’s censorship, and it can have real effects on other parts of society.
WHY IT’S DANGEROUS
To hear these excerpts out of context angered me. I’ve always truly loved books. Even at a young age, I felt like I could lose myself in the stories written on the page. It also helped that I didn’t have a lot of friends and my severely undiagnosed ADHD meant I could read them all in one sitting. Devouring stories was something that shaped a lot of my childhood and made me the writer and creative I am today.
“Genderqueer'' and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and other LGBTQIA+ books were a place of understanding as a little fat queer kid from the suburbs. I felt truly connected to stories I could see myself in, and it made me feel like there was a world where I wasn’t alone, and every child and teenager deserves to hear that and see that. Banning books doesn’t make them go away, it just gives people a list of ones they need to read.
Albertson-Grove, Josie. “‘Gender Queer’ Will Not Be Banned in Carver County Libraries.” Star Tribune, Star Tribune, 13 Sept. 2023, www.startribune.com/book-will-not-be-banned-in-carver-county/600304091/.
Anonymous. “Banned & Challenged Books.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, American Library Association, 20 Feb. 2020, www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks.
Barrón-López, Laura, and Matt Loffman. “Book Bans.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 30 June 2023, www.pbs.org/newshour/tag/book-bans.
Beauchamp, Zack. “Why Book Banning Is Back.” Vox, Vox, 10 Feb. 2022, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22914767/book-banning-crt-school-boards-republicans.
“Book Bans.” PEN America, PEN America, 22 Sept. 2023, pen.org/issue/book-bans/.
Griffith, Kristen. “Moms for Liberty Winning Fight to Remove Books from Some Maryland Schools.” The Baltimore Banner, The Baltimore Banner, 13 Sept. 2023, www.thebaltimorebanner.com/education/k-12-schools/carroll-county-maryland-schools-moms-for-liberty-ISZJNQBQKRAPFD35ZEAG3X47KY/.
Haupt, Angela. “The Rise in Book Bans, Explained.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Apr. 2023, www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/06/09/rise-book-bans-explained/.
Kiger, Patrick J. “The 15 Most Banned Books in America This School Year.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 15 May 2023, www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-05-15/15-most-banned-books-2022-2023.
Kuchar, Savannah. “‘Don’t Give an Inch on This’: Lawmakers Argue over Book Bans in Heated Hearing.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 20 Sept. 2023, www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2023/09/12/book-bans-hearing-senators-parents-rights-education/70827114007/.
Lavietes, Matt. “Florida School Districts Removed Roughly 300 Books Last School Year.” NBCNews.Com, NBCUniversal News Group, 12 Sept. 2023, www.nbcnews.com/nbc-out/out-news/florida-school-districts-removed-roughly-300-books-last-school-year-rcna104367.
Leipzig, Parker. “Demands to Ban Books Hit a 21-Year High. See Which Titles Were the Most Challenged.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 Aug. 2023, www.cnn.com/2023/08/27/us/school-library-book-ban-increase-dg/index.html.
Pearson, Rick. “Illinois Anti-Book Ban Law Falls under U.S. Senate Scrutiny.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 12 Sept. 2023, www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-giannoulias-book-ban-senate-hearing-20230912-augmbsw6x5ap7ncg7skvnqvoze-story.html.
Yang, Mary. “‘Authoritarian Regimes Ban Books’: Democrats Raise Alarm at Senate Hearing.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Sept. 2023, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/sep/12/senate-book-bans-hearing-lgbtq.
This piece was written by one of our current world events writers, Finnialla. Reach 'em at @finni_all_uh on Instagram!
This piece was edited by one of our editors, Kayla-Jane. Reach 'em at @kj.poetrytherapy on Instagram and https://medium.com/@kaylajbarrie on Medium!