If censorship efforts succeed, school libraries across the United States will have empty shelves in the places where diverse literature once stood. Attempts to remove library books depicting race, the Holocaust and LGBTQ experiences have increased across the country. According to a statement from the American Library Association, the Office of Intellectual Freedom tracked 155 censorship incidents from June 1, 2021, to Sept. 30, 2021.
New efforts to ban books have spiraled into a storm of censorship in recent months. Sen. Rob Standridge of Oklahoma introduced a bill in December that would prohibit public school libraries from having any books discussing sexual or gender identity. Also, in January the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee voted to remove the graphic novel “Maus” from eighth-grade curriculum due to its use of curse words and nudity.
Further south, an NBC study of 100 school districts in Texas revealed 86 requests to remove books from libraries in 2021. The list of banned books includes “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier and “When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball” by Mark Weakland. All of these books depict the experiences of minorities in America: “Lawn Boy” is a coming-of-age novel about a gay Mexican American character, “Drama” is a graphic novel about gay and bisexual characters, and “When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball” describes the racism that Olympian Wilma Rudolph experienced as a child.
The words in a book cannot harm a parent, but their absence can certainly harm a child. For many children in marginalized communities, the school library is a safe haven where they can see their own experiences reflected in those of a book character.
Libraries are treasure troves of discovery where children can find the answers to any question, even questions they may not feel comfortable asking parents or teachers. Banning books on race, gender and sexuality silences minority voices and limits the range of lived experiences depicted in literature. When only white, straight voices are allowed to have visible stories, it leaves everyone else to live in shadow.
As an LGBTQ child, reading a school library book that described my feelings and experiences would have saved me two decades of confusion and anguish. The plethora of LGBTQ young adult books available now did not exist when I was growing up, and as a result I didn’t understand my own identity until years later.
Books have the power to change lives. Connecting with a book character is like finding a friend who says, “I see you, and I understand what you’re going through.” Books make us feel less alone, and book characters who share our struggles and joys help us understand our own experiences. When we see them successfully battle their demons, we feel like we have a chance to overcome ours.
To restrict children’s access to the books and characters that validate their feelings and experiences is nothing short of cruel. The content of books is not the problem; the problem is the people who use literature as a political pawn.
Jamie Brian is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected]