Sunday was the beginning of Banned Books Week. As you know, Banned Books Week is a big deal around here.
I got a little preachy in my classes and gave them quite a sermon on banned books. But I took a different tack than I usually do. This time I didn’t talk about censorship or free speech. I don’t know how much that really hits home sometimes. This time I talked about how book challenges are a matter of equity.
The books that are being challenged and reviewed and being pulled from school curricula deal with race and LGBTQ+ issues. This is incredibly important to understand in terms of the larger narrative. The reviews and challenges come under the guise of what is “age appropriate,” but they target particular populations. These are populations that deal with marginalization in a number of ways. Some of these kids need access to these books at school because it’s where they have access to books. They may not be part of larger communities where there is a supportive environment of literacy. Their parents may not support their reading habits, either because of environmental reasons or BECAUSE they are marginalized. Having these books readily available in school and part of a curriculum, and right there, in the library, there for everyone to see, says, “hey, we recognize you are here. You’re a part of this story. You belong here.”
These kids NEED representation in school. And, quite frankly, those kids who aren’t marginalized NEED to see those kids represented just as much. When we tell these kids it’s okay if your story isn’t told at school, it’s tantamount to marginalizing them all over again. Because what they may hear when we say that is that it’s okay if your story isn’t told.
It’s important for the kids whose story is in those books, and it’s important for the other kids who are reading those books and learning to empathize with other people. And we need to teach our kids to do the same. We need to teach our kids that it’s not okay for people to take stories from them. It’s not okay to silence people’s voices.
This history of American literature is that Voices of Color and LGBTQ+ voices have been silenced as it is. These book bans are like public reminders that these stories don’t belong in the mainstream. We can’t let our kids see and hear that if we want to call ourselves any kind of democracy.
These stories matter. They are the stories of people who need to see themselves in schools and in libraries. They matter because they are teaching other kids who to let live and to love people who they may not think they have a lot in common with.
One of the most banned books of the last few years is a small kids’ book called Melissa. It was originally titled George, but out of respect for the community the book was about later editions and printings of the book changed the title.
Melissa is a children’s novel about a young transgender girl written by Alex Gino. It tells the story of Melissa, a fourth-grade girl who is struggling to be herself to the rest of the world. The rest of the world sees Melissa as George. Melissa uses the class play, Charlotte’s Web, to show her mom that she is a girl by switching roles with her best friend and playing the part of Charlotte.
The novel has received positive feedback from sources such as the New York Times and NPR for its inclusion of transgender experiences. However, the book has remained controversial, leading it to be listed on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 Most Challenged Books of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 (topping the list in 2018, 2019, and 2020). Common reasons for challenging the book include its sexual references and conflict with “traditional family structure,” with some saying schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion.” It ultimately became the fifth-most banned book between 2010 and 2020.
This is a book that is important to kids who don’t often seem themselves in kids’ lit. We see memes and shirts and signs that say, “Protect Trans Kids” and “Support Trans Youth” but what does that mean?
It means books like this.
Melissa is a way for kids to see themselves being themselves and being loved. And that’s powerful. Cis-het kids see themselves that way all the time. Trans kids are thirsty for representation like that. When people say that books like Melissa are inappropriate, trans kids hear that their identity is inappropriate. It’s inappropriate for them to be themselves. It’s inappropriate for anybody to love them as they are.
So the efforts to ban books or to challenge them is absolutely an equity issue. Challenging these titles is at the heart of social justice.
Another book that has recently garnered a lot of attention is Maus. The Pulitzer Prize winning work from Art Spiegelman was banned by a school board in Tennessee because it has swear words in it and depicts a “naked character.” The swear words are words like “damn” and “hell.” And the naked figure in question was a mouse. And this was not some elementary school book, either. This was part of the eighth-grade curriculum. These are 13–14-year-olds that the school board decided needed to be protected from a few bad words and a naked mouse. Because, of course, no eighth grader has ever heard the word “damn” before. And if they were to hear it it would obviously disrupt their learning to a point that they’d never recover. And a naked mouse is obviously too sexy and too distracting for 13-year-olds to handle. And this says nothing weird about the adults who are sexualizing a picture of an animal.
But this is not just any book. It is a book about the Holocaust. At a time of rising antisemitism and when there is a concerted effort to get rid of any history dealing with race or inequity this school board voted unanimously to remove a book about the Holocaust from their curriculum.
The members of the school board insist that this is not because the book is about the Holocaust. But that the book is inappropriate. They want to find a book that is more appropriate to teach the Holocaust. Which leads to a very important question: how does one appropriately teach the horrors of the Holocaust? How does one make the terror of genocide palatable and acceptable? What book would they accept as seemly that tells the story of the attempted extermination of entire groups of people?
The thing about the Holocaust is that it was terrible. Children died. And if people don’t know that then they don’t know why we need to guard against the people who embrace the philosophy that enabled it.
This comes on the heels of numerous stories from all over the nation of politicians and parents’ groups banding together to get books out of teacher’s and students’ hands and even off of library shelves.
Now, I shared this with my students, and one well-meaning guy raised his hand somewhat reticently and said, “So, I absolutely am not on the side of book banning. I totally get what you’re saying. But I also understand some of the motivation behind this. I mean, there IS something to be said about age appropriate-ness. I mean, are 13-year-olds really able to handle the emotional impact of the Holocaust? That’s really huge. I understand wanting to find books that are geared toward meeting kids where they are.”
And another student raised her hand and talked about going to the Holocaust Museum when she was in 8th grade and how powerful that was, and he seemed to take that into consideration.
But then I said, “But isn’t that just a point of privilege? I mean, the desire to protect kids from difficult topics is really indicative of how separated some people are from marginalized groups. I mean, we say, ‘oh, our kids aren’t ready to learn about racism.’ But Black and Brown kids have been dealing with racism since they day they were born. Or we say, ‘these kids aren’t ready to learn about the Holocaust.’ But Jewish kids have been dealing with vitriolic antisemitism since they were infants. The fact that we want to protect some kids from difficult topics is just a reminder that they have the privilege of not dealing with the daily lives of marginalized kids.”
And I expected this to make this kid mad, but he paused and said, “Thank you. Thank you for pointing that out to me. I never would have thought about it that way. That gives me a lot to think about. I need to consider some things.”
That was a big moment for the both of us. We both came a long way in that moment. We both learned something about people right then.
This conversation continued with a discussion of narrative. Narrative was, of course, construed rather loosely, because we were talking about both the small, tightly packed stories we tell (just like in a book), and the broader cultural narratives that bind us. We were looking at a historical piece to help us with this discussion, but the banned books example was just as fruitful.
The culmination of this discussion was that there is a broader narrative we are all a part of and all learning from the moment we learn to communicate, and we keep hearing and re-emphasizing that narrative all throughout our lives. It’s a social narrative. A cultural narrative. And a historical narrative. It’s the story of who we are. In class the example we were using was the speech “Farewell to Blackhawk,” which is the surrender speech of Native American Sauk leader, Blackhawk, in 1832 to white infantrymen. It’s a heart wrenching story of defeat and loss. In it he tells a story of how he has lost to encroaching white invaders, but we talked about how it was also part of a larger narrative. One of westward expansion and white supremacy. But what was really interesting is that nobody had ever heard of it. And, honestly, that’s no surprise. But Blackhawk was an important leader to his people. He was an important warrior during that time period. So why didn’t we know who he was?
We know who Thomas Jefferson was and what he said. We know all about George Washington. So why don’t we know about Blackhawk, or really any other Native leader? Except for maybe the mythos around Pocahontas, Squanto, and Quanah Parker, all of the stories around indigenous people have been lost to history.
Now, I will be the first to admit that we can’t tell all stories. We don’t have the time, energy, or capacity to tell every story of every person who has ever been influential. But that means we pick and choose the stories that we tell. And that act of picking and choosing is ideological and political. We do that to craft and shape a narrative that says something about who we are – and that has not included Native Americans.
This is pertinent to the book banning discussion because that is EXACTLY what we are doing when we challenge books. It is political and ideological and an attempt to shape our narrative. It is an attempt to decide which stories can and should be told. These challenges to books by and about marginalized populations aren’t about what is age appropriate – they are about keeping people on the margins. Because there is not age of an age of accountability or reason when white kids are suddenly able to deal with Black and Brown people and a history of racism or straight kids can handle gay or trans people. The world is made up of all of these. And to deny that is straight up ignorance. Shielding your kids from knowing about other people and their lives isn’t keeping them protected or keeping them innocent – it’s keeping them foolish.
These attempts to control the narrative aren’t about protecting kids. They are about maligning people. We can’t lose sight of that. Those who would challenge these books are trying to control a narrative that they are terrified they are losing power over. And there is a big connection between books and narrative.
So if you haven’t already, do something to celebrate Banned Books Week. Support your local library. Maybe even check out a challenged book. If you’re feeling really rebellious, buy a challenged book from your local bookstore. Drop a few coins in the coffer of one of those challenged authors! Do your part to expand the narrative. It’s a matter of equity.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.