Book Banning is Getting Worse
And it’s not just another culture war
I’ve been very worried about the current wave of book bans. I haven’t been worried enough.
As state after state and town after town has made moves in recent years to over-regulate books, the issue has received a lot of media coverage. Alarmed, I’ve written about it (here and here). Still, until now, I haven’t allowed myself to become as alarmed as I should be. Frog-in-pot syndrome is one reason. Another may be that too much false comfort is swaddling the discussion. I want to strip away some of that here.
False Comfort: Book bans are a perennial school issue. Yes, the main arena for the current wave of bans, as in the past, is schools, where the books being taught and shelved are up for debate. The number of these is exploding, as PEN America has been documenting. School librarians are under pressure to remove books, even displays — a Pennsylvania librarian was told to take down an Elie Wiesel quote he’d posted about the danger of silence. But this wave isn’t limited to schools. The same extremists targeting schools are targeting public libraries. Last week, North Dakota’s legislature began considering a bill requiring librarians to purge books deemed offensive or face prison time. Across the country, public libraries are being threatened with defunding and closure if they don’t remove certain books.
And it’s not just taxpayer-funded institutions: publishers and bookstores are being targeted. A Virginia state delegate filed a lawsuit against Simon and Schuster and sought a restraining order against Barnes and Noble to prevent them from selling a book to minors. The North Dakota bill would “charge any person who displays these materials at places that children visit.”
False Comfort: Book bans can seem like a red state problem.
Not so. PEN America, which has been tracking book bans and the educational censorship laws that make bans easier, reveals a spreading mania.
The broader, well-financed effort to intimidate educators and librarians is nationwide, as astroturf groups such as Moms For Liberty, with chapters in 37 states as of last summer, inspire and organize vocal minorities even in the bluest districts to stoke fear about books on social media and at school board meetings and to fuel school board runs on the fumes of these fears. And of course the right-wing media feeding panic about indoctrination knows no borders. The result: an increase in “soft censorship” and self-censorship, as Nadra Nittle explained in The 19th, that educators are susceptible to even if their state hasn’t passed draconian legislation.
A new Rand report, “Walking on Eggshells,” revealed a quarter of US teachers have made changes to instruction or curriculum, such as books and other texts and materials, in response to education censorship around race and gender. Importantly, 22% of teachers in districts without explicit restrictions reported making changes. The report used survey data from spring 2022. As more restrictions have been instituted since, today’s number would likely be higher. And it is principals in purple districts who reported the most political conflict and pressure in a recent UCLA survey.
False comfort: Only a small number of books seem to be at stake.
Many stories about bans mention only the most often-challenged books. But the vague language of current laws and directives means many books are being withheld from children. Judd Legum revealed teachers in Manatee, Florida have been forced to remove their classroom libraries and The Washington Post reported that throughout the state, many school librarians have been unable to order books for nearly a year. WaPo noted this year a Texas district has ordered thousands fewer books, a Pennsylvania school librarian has ordered hundreds fewer, and a Tennessee school banned book fairs. We can’t know how many teachers have removed books from shelves in fear, administrators have denied book orders, or publishers have turned down the kinds of books educators could freely purchase in the past.
We do know that when educators can’t offer fresh selections, classroom libraries, and book fairs that provide students easy access to a wide variety of contemporary, high interest books from which they can choose, they are denied proven tools needed to get and keep students reading.
False comfort: Bans may turn books into forbidden fruit.
I’ve seen this wishful thinking expressed ad nauseam on social media: that banning books will backfire by making kids want to read them. Since 1982, the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week has provided educators and parents an opportunity to encourage reading, but I’ve never seen any research to show children are more likely to read a book just because it’s been banned (nor had a former head of the ALA at one point), and I did not find this a particularly persuasive selling point in two decades of teaching English to middle and high school students.
I’ve seen kids start a book because they enjoyed the genre or had seen the film or because a friend or classmate loved it, but the main reason: they felt a personal connection with its setting, characters, or situations. Restricting choice is far more likely to restrict reading than to provide the lure of forbidden fruit (for which there is an orchard called the internet).
False comfort: More extreme censorship efforts may not succeed.
Reports about the more extreme proposals can include fair and reassuring disclaimers (a bill is unlikely to pass; a law won’t hold up in court), but these attempts do damage even if they fail. They require costly countersuits, they compound fear, uncertainty, and bureaucratic chaos, and they create conditions for the overregulation of books by methods that seem less extreme than the original proposals, whether necessary or reasonable or not. As Amanda Marcotte put it in an appropriately hair-on-fire piece, they “have a ripple effect, recasting reading not as a social good but a threat to be strictly regulated.”
The words of the Virginia legislator who sued the publisher and book chain should remove any comfort from his lawsuit’s failure: “‘We have to keep working our way up the ladder,’ he said outside the courthouse. After all, he noted: ‘Dobbs lost all the way to the top.’”
False comfort: Book banning is just another culture war ginned up to win elections.
It is another culture war ginned up to win elections. We know this because they’ve told us. So was abortion — until that right was taken from millions of Americans.
Banners are targeting books by LGBTQ+ authors and books about LGBTQ+ characters and themes for political points, yes, but also as part of a broader effort to put queer people back in the closet, deny them healthcare, and roll back rights such as the right to marriage. They are targeting books by authors of color with diverse characters and tackling issues around race and ethnicity, part of a broader effort to thwart steps toward equality, civil rights, and voting rights. Centering politicians’ personal ambitions can obscure the real threat to the well-being of so many.
And it’s not a culture war that just happens to be playing out mainly in schools. Book banning is part of a multi-pronged effort to break down trust in public schools and divert tax dollars to private ones — another former quiet part now shouted. Book bans and education gag orders are being passed in tandem with “school choice” bills that pull funding from public schools to pay tuition at private ones or for homeschooling or in some cases almost anything a parent wants to call educational. These dollars are usually sought by and go to parents already sending their children to private schools. These “scholarship” or voucher bills are sometimes presented as a response to organic parental demands rather than as the result of a decades-long, coordinated campaign by exceptionally well-funded “choice” advocates and right-wing organizations like The Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute, manufacturers of the faux CRT outrage. In recent years, half of all states have passed voucher laws, with the number expanding now that the Supreme Court opened the door to tax dollars for religious schools.
Book banning has a long history in America, but it’s a mistake to hope that this too shall pass. The minority rule that allowed the Dobbs decision, the rise of right-wing extremism and political violence, and the proliferation and power of sources of mis- and disinformation make this an especially dangerous moment. It’s not going to pass if we don’t recognize the seriousness of the threat.
The good news is while the overall assault on public education feels overwhelming, book bans are winnable fights at the local level in part because this type of censorship is hugely unpopular. The second half of this Bookriot piece provides advice on how to help resist censorship in your community.
Highly recommended in addition to the sources in the hyperlinks:
NPR Special Series: “Banned and Challenged: Restricting access to books in the U.S.”
Democracy and Education website