By now I am sure you have all heard about the furor surrounding the graphic novel 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.”
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 the curriculum.
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 woman. The woman in question is a very small image of a woman in a bathtub with slit wrists. There is nothing sexual about the picture – it is simply part of the overall story of the atrocity of the Holocaust. If that’s not what they are concerned about then we have to assume that they are upset about pictures of naked animals. If you are sexualizing animals, then that is a whole other set of issues.
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?
As Chris Boyette reports,
Board member Tony Allman took issue with how the content would be redacted, and added, “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy,” according to the meeting minutes.
I guess the board is looking for a kinder, more gentle Holocaust.
There’s been cries from people all over that these are just attempts to whitewash history, but this school board is making it plain – they want to show a history stripped of, well, history.
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.
Which, ironically, also happened to be people who banned books. But I guess that’s neither here nor there.
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.
In Texas, this debate has been raging for months, with state officials challenging almost 1000 titles.
Michael Powell writes,
In late September, Carrie Damon, a middle school librarian, celebrated “Banned Books Week,” an annual free-speech event, with her working-class Latino students by talking of literature’s beauty and subversive power.
A few weeks later, State Representative Matt Krause, a Republican, emailed a list of 850 books to superintendents, a mix of half-century-old novels — “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron — and works by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Margaret Atwood, as well as edgy young adult books touching on sexual identity. Are these works, he asked, on your library shelves?
Mr. Krause’s motive was unclear, but the next night, at a school board meeting in San Antonio, parents accused a librarian of poisoning young minds.
Days later, a secretary sidled up to Ms. Damon and asked if district libraries held pornography.
“‘No, no, honey, we don’t buy porno,’” Ms. Damon replied.
She sighed. “I don’t need my blood pressure going crazy worrying about ending up on a politician’s radar.”
Texas is afire with fierce battles over education, race and gender. What began as a debate over social studies curriculum and critical race studies — an academic theory about how systemic racism enters the pores of society — has become something broader and more profound, not least an effort to curtail and even ban books, including classics of American literature.
In June, and again in recent weeks, Texas legislators passed a law shaping how teachers approach instruction touching on race and gender. And Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican with presidential ambitions, took aim at school library shelves, directing education officials to investigate “criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography.”
Allyson Waller and Kevin Reynolds wrote in December,
In response to Krause’s inquiry, Gov. Greg Abbott tapped the Texas Education Agency to investigate the availability of “pornographic books” in schools. In the weeks since, school districts across the state have launched reviews of their book collections, and state officials have begun investigating student access to inappropriate content.
As more residents began turning their sights on local libraries, the state library association set up a “peer counseling” helpline for librarians to get support from others more familiar with book challenges.
“A library may get one or two [book challenges] in two years, or some librarians have never had challenges,” Woodland said. “So this is very rare and very unusual and different from the way challenges have been brought forth in the past.”
The books that are being challenged and are listed on Krause’s original list of books for review, all seem to follow a theme.
Danika Ellis writes,
These books are theoretically related to House Bill 3979, a so-called anti-CRT bill that bans teaching any materials that could mean “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” Of course, the bill — which is an overreach that has confused school districts about how to follow it — doesn’t actually mention books in school libraries. It’s about curriculum. Nonetheless, with the increase of book bans and challenges recently, Krause appears to want to preemptively remove any books that could be challenged for causing “discomfort.”
Perhaps the most disturbing trend I saw in this list is the challenging of books that teach students their rights. Of all the things to teach in school or for kids to have access to, this is one of the most important. To be clear, I’m not even counting books about reproductive rights or your rights as an LGBTQ person in particular. These are titles like The Legal Atlas of the United States, Teen Legal Rights, Gender Equality and Identity Rights (Foundations of Democracy), Equal Rights, We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and About Students, and Peaceful Rights for Equal Rights.
She also notes,
Sex education books for kids and teens have been facing increased censorship this year, including classics like It’s Perfectly Normal (yep, that one’s on the list!) I was surprised by just how broad and sweeping the approach is on this list, though. Not only is every book on human sexuality disallowed, from The Baby Tree to teen books about STIs, but also anything that mentions teen pregnancy, including YA novels. About 5% of the books banned have to do with pregnancy.
Similarly, she notes,
Based on Bill 3979 and Krause’s letter, you might expect this list to be mainly books about racism (which might cause white student “discomfort” — never mind the discomfort students of color face dealing with racism), and they’re certainly on there. But in terms of sheer numbers, it’s LGBTQ books that make up more than half of the 850 books listed.
Neither Krause’s letter nor the bill mention LGBTQ topics, but that is most of what’s being targeted here: 13.9% of all the books challenged are trans specifically, almost as many as all the sex ed books combined. Considering how few trans books are published, this is a huge number. Krause doesn’t give any reason or justification for challenging LGBTQ books, despite them being the majority of the books listed
Book banning has a long and storied history in America.
During the 1600s censorship sometimes took the form of a good old-fashioned book burning. In October 1650, William Pynchon’s publication, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, was criticized and promptly burned by the Puritan government. This is often referred to as the first official book burning in America.
In later years, in the 1870s, the government established the Comstock Act, which was clearly shy of burning books, but certainly had the effect of chilling speech. The Act criminalized usage of the U.S. Postal Service to send any of the following items: erotica, contraceptives, sex toys, or sexual private communication. The Act not only restrained the distribution of pornography but also the spread of medical journals that held information regarding contraceptives and abortion. In places such as Washington, D.C., where the federal government has direct jurisdiction, the act also made it a misdemeanor to sell, give away, or have in possession any “obscene” publication. Half of the states passed similar anti-obscenity statutes. What you have to understand about these laws, is how expansive the definition of obscenity was at this point in time. At this point, we were still going by the Hicklin Rule. The Hicklin test was “whether the tendency of the matter is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” Basically, if something aroused lustful thoughts in the most susceptible minds, it was obscene. In other words, if it was inappropriate for a tween, it’s inappropriate for everybody. Making people’s access to ideas very limited indeed.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s famous collection of poetry, was withdrawn in Boston in 1881, after the District Attorney threatened criminal prosecution for the use of explicit language in some poems. The work was later published in Philadelphia.
Mark Twain’s continuously challenged book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in February 1885 and was promptly banned by librarians in Massachusetts in March of the same year. It has since been, and still remains, among the top 100 most challenged books up to date.
The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 created a controversy that still resonates even today. Despite the surrounding debate, On the Origin of Species remained uncensored in the United States all the way into the 1920s, when high school curricula started to incorporate the theory of Darwinian evolution. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was soon after banned in parts of America, notably Tennessee. The Tennessee ban remained on the books until 1967, “when the Supreme Court declared it in conflict with the First and Fourteenth Amendments” So we can see that Tennessee has some experience with book banning, in general.
The banning of books became more prevalent during the twentieth century as modernist and progressive writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck began their literary careers. These authors did not refrain from revealing their opinions about controversial subject matter. These new storytellers took new directions in narratives, experimenting with themes, and telling stories in which the good did not always triumph over evil, and describing in sometimes graphic detail some of the more tragic parts of life. Traditionalists and conservative readers did not always care for such raw storytelling or such realism. They preferred cleaner stories with tidier endings and more polite characters.
So book banning is not new. But having a history doesn’t make it right. As a student in Granbury told their school board recently, nobody who banned books has been heralded as the good guy by history.
Not surprisingly, the response to all of this has been loud and passionate. Maus is now one of the best-selling books in America. People are coming out in droves to support authors and books that are being challenged. It is causing a furor online.
One thing that has been circulated online is a quote by Stephen King. People who are ostensibly against banning books have posted and reblogged memes with King’s words all over Facebook and other social media. The quote says:
When books are run out of school classrooms and libraries, I’m never much disturbed. Not as a citizen, not as a writer, not even as a schoolteacher … which I used to be.
What I tell kids is, don’t get mad, get even.
Don’t spend time waving signs or carrying petitions around the neighborhood. Instead, run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or the local bookstore and get whatever it was that they banned.
Read whatever they’re trying to keep out of your eyes and your brain, because that’s exactly what you need to know.
I know people who posted that are well-meaning, but that sentiment is very misplaced and only serves the help the most privileged among us. Especially in a situation in which the books that are banned are being banned because they speak to marginalized communities.
The books under review and being pulled from school curricula deal with race and LGBTQ+ issues. 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. They may not be in a situation where they can easily get to the library. Their parents may not support their reading habits, either because of environmental reasons or BECAUSE they are marginalized.
These kids NEED representation in school. And, quite frankly, those kids who aren’t marginalized NEED to see those kids represented just as much. We can’t relegate the stories of marginalized people to places where only certain people go.
When we tell these kids it’s okay if your story isn’t told at school because you can find it at the library, 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.
So we DO need to get mad. We DO need to do something. We need to fight for these books, and by proxy for these kids. We need to make sure these stories stay in our schools because they BELONG in our schools. 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. And they can do something about that. They should say something when somebody tries to steal somebody’s narrative. They should speak out when something isn’t right. They SHOULD be disturbed when their friends and peers are being erased out of public discourse. And if we’re raising them right, they will want to do something about that. Their response won’t just be, “let’s go to the library.” Their response will be, “we need to do something about this!”
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 live and love people who they may not think they have a lot in common with. We have to fight for these stories. We have to fight for our history. We have to fight for the books. That’s where we live.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.