The spread of the book ban

Attempts to ban books in the US have evolved in recent years from relatively isolated struggles into a broader effort targeting works about sexual and racial identity. Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth Harris cover the publishing industry. I spoke to them about what’s behind this trend.

Claire: How did the book ban effort become so widespread?

Alexandra: We’ve seen this evolve from a school or community issue into a really divisive political issue. In the past, parents might have heard about a book because their child brought a copy home; Now, complaints on social media about inappropriate material are going viral, leading to more complaints in schools and libraries across the country.

Elected officials are also making the book ban another bone of contention in the culture wars. Last fall, a Republican official in Texas compiled a list of 850 books he believed to be inappropriate material in schools, containing books on sex, racism and American history. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin championed the issue by arguing that parents, not schools, should control what their children read. Democrats have also taken up the issue through congressional hearings on rising book bans.

And sometimes the disputes have escalated into something more menacing. The Proud Boys, the far-right group with a history of street fighting, emerged at a family storytelling session hosted by drag queens at a library in San Lorenzo, California.

Why do parents and conservatives want these bans?

Alexandra: For some parents, it’s about preventing children from reading certain things. Others want to teach their children about certain topics – such as LGBT rights or race – themselves.

Many of the people I’ve spoken to say they don’t see the bans they want as racist or bigoted. They say that the books contain certain content that they feel is not suitable for children, sometimes pointing out explicit passages. But librarians we speak to say the most challenged books across the country are basically all about black or brown or LGBT characters.

In Texas, local residents sued a library after a library official took books off the shelves based on a list from an elected official. They weren’t all children’s books; the list included “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.

It’s hard to separate the wave of bans from other conservative efforts to use the government to limit expression, including what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. These are all movements that have overlapped and spurred debates about book bans.

Elizabeth: Book bans are currently part of a broader political context, extreme polarization, heightened political tensions, and amplification of certain messages through the types of media – social or otherwise – that people are consuming.

Did you notice any ban attempt?

Elizabeth: In Virginia Beach, a local politician is suing Barnes & Noble over two books, Gender Queer, a memoir by Maia Kobabe, and A Court of Mist and Fury, a fantasy novel. This legislature wants Barnes & Noble to stop selling these titles to minors. The lawsuit is unlikely to succeed. But it’s escalating: the problem has gone from people thinking their children shouldn’t read certain books to trying to stop other people’s children from reading certain books.

I understand why some of the battles over reading in school are so intense: By definition, teachers make decisions about which books children read—and which ones they don’t—and parents may not always agree. Efforts to take books out of libraries feel different, yes?

Elizabeth: When people try to force a book out of the library, they make a decision for everyone that no one has access to a particular book. But librarians are trained to present a range of viewpoints. She sees it as a matter of professional ethics to ensure that the perspective of one person or group does not dictate what everyone reads.

Elizabeth: Banning books can also hurt children who identify with stories in books that are banned in their communities. The question for the child is: “What is wrong with me?”

How do librarians react?

Alexandra: It’s heartbreaking for her. Librarians say they got into this field because they love reading books and talking to people about books. Some have quit their jobs; Some were fired for refusing to remove books. Others are quitting after facing a barrage of abuse on social media.

A Texas librarian quit after 18 years after being harassed online. She moved out of state and got a job in engineering.

What’s next?

Elizabeth: The movement will not go away as long as the midterms are ahead. And the school year kicks off right when election season is getting really hot, so both of you could be stoking that fire.

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