Across the country, thousands of books are under attack. More than 1,600 books were banned in the last school year, many of them challenged for content related to race and sexuality.
Now, a number of students, parents and teachers are speaking out. According to Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America and lead author of the article "Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools," the backlash against books isn’t new. But the approach taking place now is.
“This isn't just individual parents in isolated ways, picking up books from their children and filing complaints,” Friedman says. “There are groups online who are trying to coordinate and encourage people to bring their concerns, not just to bring them to school boards, but to bring them in a kind of adamant, uncompromising fashion.”
Adam Byrn Tritt teaches high school English in Brevard County, Florida. Tritt was forced to remove a number of titles from his classroom shelves, even classics from authors like Emily Dickinson.
“I've had books I've used for years that I had to stop using,” Tritt says. “There are things which I am mandated to teach, but I must develop lesson plans for carefully, such as Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest,’ which I must somehow teach without ever bringing up the concept of colonialism or color so that I do not make any student uncomfortable in any way.”
It’s a common problem, Friedman says. The central idea behind most of the ongoing bans is that parents who object to the books should be able to act on their objections: If they don’t like a book, then it should be restricted from everyone.
Alexandra Coffey is a high school junior in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Her Central Bucks School District recently adopted restrictive book policies, namely on books that feature gender identity and race.
“I am deeply concerned by the deep negative effects that this policy will have on our Black, Brown, and queer students,” Coffey says. “If these students cannot read about people that look like them, think like them, or love like them, what kind of effects will this have? My biggest question would be, how is this legal?”
Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan offered a pattern of facts present amongst many school districts. Brennen said school libraries should function in conjunction with the First Amendment, meaning they shouldn’t be in places where the government has control over the suppression of ideas.
Alexia Duke is a mother to three children who attend public school in Lexington, Massachusetts. She expressed frustration with the curriculum. Duke says she noticed through the years, her children’s reading lists were becoming “exclusively non-white, non-heterosexual and non-Western.”
Despite acknowledging there are different viewpoints on the Western canon, Duke says an English course shouldn’t be exclusively concerned with “political debates and social justice issues.”
Friedman of PEN America says democracy is about being open and it should be reflected in schools. Teachers should have the ability to engage in a range of issues and perspectives, but book bans make that nearly impossible.
“I worry that what we're seeing right now with the censorious climate that is taking shape is that a lot of teachers are going to, instead of pushing students,…they're going to opt for lessons that are more anodyne or less relevant for the sake of avoiding controversy,” Friedman says.
Want to read some banned books? Find recommendations here.
This segment aired on September 23, 2022.