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The Dangerous Rise of Book Banning in US Schools

The years 2021-2023 saw roughly 5,894 books banned within public schools in the US. Whilst book banning is by no means a new concept (authors have been faced with literary censorship for centuries), the past few years have seen a drastic increase in banned content for underage American citizens. Such rapid censorship is a cause for concern to many authors, consumers, teachers, and politicians across the world. 

It is clear that recent book banning targets minority demographics within the US. According to PEN America, those targeted are ‘frequently female, people of colour, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals’. In 2023, 30% of all banned literature focuses on race and racism and 26% centre around LGBTQ+ characters, themes, and authors. To understand this escalated and excessive censorship is to recognise a growing discrimination across the US. This limitation on speech directly stifles diversity, equality, and human rights in American schools and society. PEN writes that:

'As book bans escalate, coupled with the proliferation of legislative efforts to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities, the freedom to read, learn, and think continues to be undermined for students.'

It is widely believed that the education of students will suffer as a result of this increased book banning. Author Khaled Hosseini claims that ‘banning books doesn’t protect students, I think it betrays them’; exposure of various cultures, beliefs, and ways of life is suppressed greatly. The lack of diversity in available literature reflects an educational system that does not prioritise diversity and inclusion in its curriculum. Book banning has effectively exposed the dangerous discrimination expanding amongst US citizens. 

What is perhaps less known about this growing movement is that in many instances, it is parent-led groups that push for books to be banned. It is crucial here to note that not all American parents are pro book banning. In fact, according to PEN, 70% of all US parents are against it and yet, it seems to make little difference against this tirade on literature. The common belief amongst many parents is that certain content is unacceptable and unsuitable for minors. Books paying attention to violence for example, are often heavily condemned for having dangerous impacts on children’s lives. Novels such as ‘The Kite Runner’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Bluest Eye’, and ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ are all labelled as inappropriate and disruptive to the wellbeing of high school students. 

However, the disregard towards extreme, life-changing, and continuous human suffering is undeniably insulting towards historical events and human experiences. In an attempt to soften harsh realities for student benefit, the devastating impacts of discrimination against race, gender, and sexuality are undermined and trivialised. US parents are choosing to underplay and ignore the severity of human conflict by forcing a set of rose-tinted glasses upon the heads of their children. Literature is exposing of the truth. Banning raw, controversial, or painful books paints an unrealistic picture of America (and indeed the whole world) as peaceful, happy, and content. 

Furthermore, a great emphasis has been placed upon the indecency of so called ‘pornographic’ literature. According to many parent groups, school boards, and even political campaigns, an overwhelming amount of literature should be banned for its sexual content. ‘Sexual content’ by definition is unclear and seems to range from kissing to sex scenes. Books such as ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’, ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’, and ‘Normal People’, invoke much disgust amongst book banning enthusiasts. Arguments that literature encourages porn in schools are often wielded as a justification for restricting literary accessibility. 

But book banning actually does little to distance people from sex and violence and instead serves to silence people’s voices. There is a clear determination to prevent students from engaging with specific world issues that may be considered uncomfortable or unpleasant. But in doing so, the US suffocate the expression and teachings of literature from across the globe. It is near impossible for someone to remain unaware of world conflict forever, particularly in this age of great media influence. And whilst maintaining childhood and adolescent innocence is important, erasing all traces of ongoing issues and discussions achieves nothing but ignorance. 

The Brevard Public School in Florida became headline news in 2022 after a recording of a parent school board meeting was released to the press. The meeting is incredibly damning to literature, scorning authors and schools for the exposure of ‘paedophilic acts, extreme detailed rape of children, and other explicit horrible sexual acts being in the books in the libraries’. A great divide was present amongst parents who either supported freedom in literature or fought for stricter regulations surrounding accessibility in their school. But what was most prevalent within this meeting, was the unavoidable racial split in the room. Those voting in favour of censorship were all white which many saw as proof of white superiority guiding the decision-making process. It is believed that a growth in white heterosexual American nationalism is at the heart of the incline in book banning.

To many parents, literature is dangerous to minors for its explicit depictions of violence, sex, pain, love, and aggression. It is certainly the duty of parents to protect their children from harm. But to others, this limitation of knowledge is what causes most damage. Hosseini, for example, argues that:

'It’s vital living in a democracy that students are exposed to ideas, are allowed to think critically and can hear voices that aren’t their own. They should learn they will share the world with people who don’t look like them and sound like them. Books are a wonderful conduit for that.'

Books are avenues to new worlds beyond our knowledge. They explore topics that expand our understanding of societies across the globe. American school children are facing restrictions that curtail their understanding of cultures, sexualities, beliefs, and difficulties beyond their own personal experiences. The literary canon is being dominated by white, heterosexual, and even male discourse. For American students, this means that their worlds are being condensed and edited to suit the demands of a culture becoming increasingly intolerant towards diversity. Parents seek to hide uncomfortable discussions from their children, pretending that issues with race, gender, sex, sexuality, and religion either do not occur or are irrelevant to their lives. The disengagement with prevalent and continuous human strife sees a distancing of America from the rest of the world. The rise of book banning is therefore not only a threat to freedom of speech, but also a dangerous downward slope towards inequality and prejudice.

Words: Ella Boxall, she/her

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