Banning of our "Beloved" Books: A Call for Continued Conversation and Action

It’s that bittersweet time of the year when my much-beloved copy of Beloved by Toni Morrison returns to its spot on my bookshelf. Beloved and I have had this routine since the 2011 National Book Festival. I am inspired to pick it up and read it, as an act of thanks for the opportunity to explore humanity beyond my own experiences, only to promptly return it to its rightful spot on the bookshelf upon completion. While the topics explored in this text were initially uncomfortable when I was first introduced to them in high school, I have come to find great comfort in this routine. This year, however, felt different and unsettling in ways that provided no comfort in completing my annual tradition. I knew that pulling my copy of Beloved from my shelf wasn’t going to be enough to make up for the fact that it, along with hundreds of other books, have been pulled from library shelves all over the United States, uncertain of when, or if, they will ever return.

While book bans are nothing new, the rhetoric surrounding bans and the sheer volume of books being banned from libraries and classrooms is new… and alarming. According to Unite Against Book Bans, there have already been 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources of 1,651 unique titles as of August 31, 2022. Remember that these numbers were reported before many school districts returned for the new school year. There also seems to be a general trend in the books that are being banned at this unprecedented rate. When examining the texts that are receiving complaints and getting banned, an article published by PEN America revealed that there is a move “to ban both fiction and non-fiction books dealing with diverse characters and experiences–including racial, ethnic, and religious identities; gender identities and sexual orientations” and that reflects “ a backlash against attempts to bring a more diverse and inclusive set of voices and perspectives into the curriculum” (Friedman & Johnson, 2022). I can’t help but wonder, what message does this send to children who see their identities, values, and cultures reflected finally in books, only to learn that they are banned? What message does it say that they are not only banned but referred to as "moral sewage" by elected officials? How can we be comfortable with losing opportunities for students to learn about differences?

One year from now, we will reflect on the end of Banned Books Week for 2023. I anticipate I will still reach for my copy of Beloved as I do every year around that time. But I cannot anticipate how I might feel at that moment. Will I feel relief that my students (both former and future) still have access to books that help them understand worlds and perspectives that might be different from their own?; Will I feel the gnawing disappointment of not having done more to fight censorship at its most basic level? Will I feel pride knowing that advocacy and awareness work to protect and preserve stories of those typically not represented in our literature? Will students, especially those with historically marginalized identities, see themselves represented in our books and stories available to them? Will we have held our lawmakers accountable for their participation and collaboration in banning books and their tone-deaf comments on November 8th

As the number of stories and sources of information getting banned increases across our nation, I do not believe we have the luxury of waiting another year to revisit this topic. This sense of urgency should be felt not just in Oklahoma, Tennessee, or Florida, where these headlines are spewing from across the nation. While I am no Constitutional scholar, I believe that students have the right under the First Amendment to receive and express many ideas within these books- regardless of how their state of residence votes.

I offered my odd yet meaningful ritual to you in the hopes that it would urge you not to make the same mistake I have. In waiting to honor these books and to reflect on what a particular text might mean in a young person’s life, I have missed out on a critical time to advocate for these life-changing and life-affirming texts. Slipping these books back into the same spot on the same shelf, year after year, is simply an act of complacency in the effort to protect these sources of information and connection to humanity, and I have to do more. I hope you will consider your role in this, too.

This raises two questions: What do we do? What can we do? Hopelessness can so often lead to idleness. I am still figuring out what this might look like, but I have some ideas of where I will start, and I would love for you join me. First, we don’t need to wait until Banned Books Week 2023 (October 1st-October 7th) to reflect on and take action to protect the books that inspired, challenged, taught, and changed us. The first thing we can do is to support the authors creating these texts. Buy these books, suggest them to your book clubs, and write a letter to the author thanking them for whatever part of the book resonated with you. Second, we can trust librarians and teachers to be the experts on content for their students. Third, find forums where you can learn more and spaces where you can further dialogue about this issue. Personally, I am particularly excited about a virtual webinar entitled A More United America: How Book Banning Prevents Literacy for All on October 20th at 6:30 pm. If you cannot attend the live webinar, you can still sign up and receive a presentation recording. I hope to ‘see’ you there so we can keep this conversation going. Until then, I will leave you with just one final thought from Jodi Picoult, author of numerous challenged books: “Just because a book is different from one’s lived experience, or makes you uncomfortable due to its subject matter, does not make it questionable. A story that causes one reader to question their own personal biases or cultural understanding may be the same story that allows another reader to truly be seen and represented in literature.”