Reading & Literacy Opinion

What Should We Really Make of Book Bans?

Researchers and educators on efforts to remove certain books from school libraries and classrooms
By Mary Hendrie — September 20, 2023 5 min read
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In recent years, book bans have soared in schools, reaching an all-time high in fall 2022. That’s according to PEN America, a nonprofit that uses media reports, publicly available documents, and school district meeting minutes to track bans. So, just how significant are these challenges to the literature students can access in school (or even in public libraries)?

Last year, Jill DeTemple, a religious-studies professor at Southern Methodist University, argued in Education Week Opinion that we’re having the wrong conversation about book removals—one that sets teachers up to fail: “In talking about lists of books, we’re missing the real questions: What do we value about education? How can we equip teachers, administrators, school boards, and librarians to support those values in the work that they do?” In her opinion essay, “Let’s Build Trust Instead of Banning Books,” she lays out some concrete steps for how to have those values-based civic and classroom conversations.

More recently, the American Enterprise Institute’s Max Eden and Heritage Foundation’s Jay P. Greene took to the EdWeek’s opinion pages to offer their own take on the conversation: “that most ‘banned’ books aren’t really banned, and that when they are, it’s mostly reasonable.” In their own research comparing 2,532 instances of banned books identified by PEN America against school library catalogs, they report that nearly three quarters of the books identified as banned were still accessible to students in school libraries.

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Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois secretary of state, talks with Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., right, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Book Bans: Examining How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature," in Hart Building on Tuesday, September 12, 2023.
Alexi Giannoulias, Illinois secretary of state, talks with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., right, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Book Bans: Examining How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature," on Sept. 12, 2023.
Tom Williams/AP

The books that were removed, they argue, were largely done so in response to reasonable complaints over sexually explicit material. And here’s one final objection to how book removals are represented: “Contrary to the popular narrative that book bans target LGBTQ+ content, half of these books depict explicit heterosexual material.”

In her opinion essay “Book Bans? My School Doesn’t Even Have a Library,” Lydia Kulina-Washburn is also leery of tidy political narratives that inflate the significance of book bans, though her exact concern takes a different shape:

“At face value, the national debates over book banning may appear to be a tension between the right and left,” wrote the Philadelphia public school teacher last year. “However, a closer look at the conflict reveals the inequity that has long defined the educational landscape. Politicians, families, and policymakers who argue the finer points of book selection in schools are ignoring the low-income schools in their states that don’t have adequate literary resources.”

But not all Opinion contributors primarily see these bans as distractions from more important conversations. In July, Tyrone C. Howard, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the president of the American Educational Research Association, asked “Whose Life Experiences Are Being Disappeared by Book Banning?” Last February, EdWeek Opinion blogger Peter DeWitt, was unequivocal in his assessment of what’s fueling this trend, arguing that “Banning Books Is Not About Protecting Children. It’s About Discrimination Against Others.”

The number of books being challenged in schools may be on the rise, but the debate is hardly new. For as long as Education Week has been in print, we’ve been covering controversies over what belongs in school libraries and reading lists—and who gets to decide. Take, for instance, this opinion essay from a specialist in teacher training back in 1990.

Decrying the removal of a book focused on slavery in his district after a parent complaint about its racist language, Joseph A. Hawkins recounted the visit to a slave castle in West Africa that solidified his philosophy for teaching his own children the horrors their ancestors endured during slavery. “I can’t think of any better protection, any better weapon, to ensure that slavery never happens again than for my children to read realistic material about slavery and be exposed to its racist language,” he wrote.

His advice for his fellow educators was just as firm: “I wish educators would stop running away from their responsibilities. Stop taking the road of least resistance. Stop hiding every time a parent complains. Stop giving in.”

The challenge of balancing parent concerns about “age appropriateness” against the imperative of preparing students to be informed citizens is still on the minds of many educators today. And for some of them, the question is not just academic. Teacher Sarah Bonner found herself driven out of the classroom by criticism over her inclusion of Juno Dawson’s young adult This Book Is Gay in a classroom activity exploring protest art. Within days of the activity, a parent had contacted a conservative local radio news station, setting off a media firestorm in her small Illinois town. By the time someone filed a police report against her for “child endangerment” later that week, Bonner recounts in an emotional essay, she knew she had to leave her classroom.

Despite the upheaval, Bonner stands by her professional decisionmaking, offering a conclusion that mirrors Hawkins’ 33-year-old call to action. “Having Dawson’s book in my classroom is a choice I would make over and over again,” Bonner wrote, “If I were a student in the LGBTQ+ community witnessing this outcry, I would feel unsafe, fearing that I could be the next target. All students need reassurance that they are supported and protected.”

Such curricular decisionmaking should be left to the professionals, argues English/language arts instructional specialist Miriam Plotinsky. “Examining texts for their appropriateness is not a job that noneducators are trained to do,” she wrote last year, as the national debate over censorship resurged with the news that a Tennessee district banned the graphic novel Maus just days before Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Instead of trying to make learning frictionless for students, Plotinsky challenged adults to address our own discomfort with exposing students to hard truths about our shared history.

And what do students themselves have to say about book bans? Most of them—57 percent—don’t even notice, said school library employees in a recent national survey from the EdWeek Research Center. A third of students seem to get more interested in reading the book, while only 1 percent support the ban.

What’s the view on controversial books from your district?

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