I grew up on fairytales, but now they’re being snatched out of children’s hands. Fueled by hysteria, book banning has spread like a wildfire. As students speak out against these bans, the narrative for book bans has proposed that teens aren’t the most reliable, and are prone to mistakes. But here’s the truth: everyone makes mistakes, no matter their age, and if you support book banning, you’re making a big one.
Students at Canby High School in Canby, Oregon agree. They have been protesting against the removal of 36 books from their school’s shelves since March of 2023. These books include titles such as “Heartstopper” by Alice Oseman, “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, and “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur. The district chose to pull the books for review after two parents requested their removal. A group of Canby students are vehemently opposed to this decision and have hosted protests while raising awareness on the Instagram page @donottakemybookschs.
A similar incident occurred in the early 2000s, when Clackamas parents challenged “Ricochet River” by Robin Cody due to a scene with sexual content. Other community members, including students and teachers, united against the attempts to ban “Ricochet River,” and it continued to be a part of the school’s curriculum. Cody did end up publishing an edited version, aiming to “keep selling books,” but is ultimately against book banning. “Almost everything I’ve seen banned is not [banned by] a reader,” he observes, adding that bans are often pushed for by political organizations. The end result of book bans is us “not think[ing] for ourselves,” says Cody.
Cody’s passion for books is clear; he emphasizes the importance of books inspiring critical thought by connecting this to his granddaughter. “[She’s] becoming a good reader, nobody can tell her what to do.” I believe that may be part of the reasoning for these challenges. Kids growing up and forming their own opinions is bittersweet, and I’m sure it’s scary for parents. However, it just means that your child is finding themselves. Jason Hupp, a Canby High senior, states, “I know change is hard for some people but refusing to learn from that change is, plain and simple, ignorance and bigotry.”
Considering my own experience in book banning discussions, there’s been a common rhetoric of “So, should Mein Kampf be in school libraries?” I don’t claim to be an expert on Judaism or the Holocaust, but I do know that my Jewish grandfather always stressed the importance of remembering, and part of that remembering was having the knowledge to do so. I do not condone hate or antisemitism in any form, but erasure is not the answer. Obviously, Mein Kampf shouldn’t be sitting in a school library for any unsuspecting scholar to pick up, but restricting students’ knowledge about the past inhibits their understanding of history. Removing books limits healthy discussions; adding trigger or content warnings, and guiding kids to look at problematic books through a critical lens, are much better alternatives. It’s important to note that banning and burning books were some of the Nazi’s methods of suppressing Jewish voices. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, more than 25,000 books were burned by the Nazis.
Additionally, Mein Kampf isn’t in most school libraries, and this narrative distracts from the larger problem. Most of the books being banned aren’t hate filled personal narratives by a man who committed one of the worst atrocities in history; instead they’re middle grade or young adult books (and in some cases, picture books) that show queer people and people of colors’ stories. Censoring these stories sends a very powerful, and a very harmful message. Hupp states, “This personally affects me because I am a gay trans man. This is my life they are trying to censor. I will not be complicit in my eradication from literature.”
According to data from PEN America, a nonprofit focused on free expression, 30% of the 874 titles banned in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year are about race, racism, or are focused on characters of color, and 26% have LGBTQ+ characters or themes. The report also highlights that “rhetoric about ‘porn in schools’ has been a significant factor behind [book bans] which routinely conflate books that contain any sexual content or include LGBTQ+ characters with ‘pornography.’” This is corroborated by the American Library Association’s 2022 list of most challenged books, which has 13 books, each with “sexually explicit” as a reason for challenging it. The majority of these books also include LGBTQ+ characters. This rhetoric sexualizes queer youth for doing the same things their heterosexual counterparts do every day.
In addition, removing access to books about sensitive topics doesn’t erase those topics from existence, they just limit people’s understanding of them, and prevent them from making informed decisions. Sex is a reality for teens, and banning books that contain it doesn’t prevent teens from participating. Instead, it isolates and shames them. The Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs (IGWYP), a branch of the U.S. government, writes that protective factors against teen pregnancy “include open communication with parents and/or adults about accurate contraception use, parental support and healthy family dynamics, and peer use of condoms.” Books containing healthy sexual scenes can help to facilitate these discussions. The IWGYP adds that other examples of protective factors are “positive attitudes towards condom use, intent to abstain from sex or limit one’s number of partners, and accurate knowledge of sexual health, HIV infection, sexually transmitted infections, the importance of abstinence, and pregnancy.” Banning books for including these topics goes against the ideology that book bans protect kids; they stigmatize sex which in turn may dissuade teens from making efforts to obtain contraceptives due to shame. This directly contributes to unsafe sex and the resulting pregnancy and sexual health issues.
Books have helped me understand my own experiences and those of other people. They have made me a more empathetic and considerate person. Data from psychologists at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that reading fiction can increase people’s empathy. If we continue to remove books, then we are on an endless path away from kindness. As Hupp puts it, “the only way we can learn and grow as humans is to read and learn about the experiences of others. If we ban books, we will never know about those experiences and we will never grow.”
Book challenges also raise questions such as: “Who gets to decide what books should be banned?” and “What types of books should be banned?” When we accept attempts to ban books, the line blurs and allows people to remove any idea they disagree with. Critical thought will, and already, is withering. In the end, we will lose books all together because every book will have something that bothers someone. This echoes Ray Bradbury’s chilling premonition in Fahrenheit 451: “White people don’t feel good about ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin?’ Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” Fahrenheit 451 is a book that has been frequently challenged.
Identifying age appropriate books for students is important. Yet there’s a difference between guiding students towards books and outright preventing their choice. We need to trust that the librarians with years of schooling can choose books for their libraries that are appropriate and educational.
Still, I understand that fear is a powerful motivator and the unfamiliar is scary. Bradbury writes, “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” Letting your fear harm children is selfish. Be brave and listen to the students saying that book banning is unacceptable and that diverse stories are needed. Cody states, “Someone who’s going to be a writer cannot be stopped.” We the students are writing the story against book bans and we will not be stopped. Be on the right side of history, pick up your pen and join us.