Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Literature has indescribable power. It challenges the status quo, gives marginalised people a platform to share their voices, and allows readers to see the world from a new perspective. However, in the eyes of conservatives across the US, that is exactly the problem, with more and more titles being added onto an ever-expanding list of books that have been banned or removed from schools. With controversies surrounding books in schools up a startling 60% since last year, the past few months have seen a surge in Republicans working to remove texts from school libraries.
At the end of October, Texas State Representative Matt Krause sent an email to schools across the state inquiring whether they owned any of the 850 books listed on a hastily compiled spreadsheet. Detailed information about where they were kept and how much had been spent on them was also requested. The titles he targeted ranged from sex education resources, to YA fiction books that had the audacity to mention people of colour or the LGBTQ+ community, toa children’s book on human rights by Amnesty International. Likewise, this month, the Goddard school district in Kansas removed over 20 books from its libraries due to concerns over whether their content was appropriate. These included literary classics like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, along with Angie Thomas’ bestselling YA book The Hate U Give. A school district in Utah has also removed several titles from its library shelves this month after parents complained their content was “inappropriate”.
Many of these incidents have been justified with the argument that they are in line with laws such as one recently passed in Tennessee prohibiting the teaching of subjects that could cause "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or distress solely because of the individual's race or sex”. Even disregarding the fact that the law doesn’t explicitly reference books, this surge in book-banning is extremely problematic. It means children remain ignorant to societal prejudice and teaches them to believe that their desire not to feel temporary discomfort is more important than the rights of their peers to equal treatment. Perhaps even more alarmingly, it sets the precedent - especially for young women, queer students and students of colour - that their identities should be hidden away to prevent causing others “discomfort”.
In short, banning books about uncomfortable issues doesn’t make them go away —it just makes them even more taboo and even more uncomfortable. It prevents students from listening to a wide range of voices and understanding that everybody’s experiences are different. Literature does wonders to normalise historically taboo issues, like sexuality, racism, gender identity and sex. It facilitates conversations which may feel awkward in the moment but are necessary to ensure that society can progress in becoming open and equal. Depriving young people of the opportunity to learn from people who are different to them, or, equally, to read stories that represent their own experiences, does nothing to protect them from “anguish”. It simply allows ignorance and prejudice to thrive.