Banning books from classrooms and school libraries is nothing new, but it's recently become a topic of considerable political debate.
A Tennessee school district drew national attention after banning Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved was a central discussion topic in the final weeks of Virginia's gubernatorial race last fall. In October, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause asked schools in his state to confirm if they possessed any books from a list featuring around 850 titles. Krause stated he chose these books because they "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress because of their race or sex."
According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the books that received the most challenges in libraries and schools during 2020 were ones dealing with "racism, Black American history and diversity in the United States."
How should parents react to this news and to the books their children are reading? NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon and Traci Thomas, host of The Stacks podcast, joined guest host Ayesha Rascoe to talk about banned book lists on Nov. 24.
The three talk about why it's important for kids to discover books freely, even if that means starting a hard conversation with them. They also discuss their favorite — and least favorite — books that often show up on banned book lists.
Why is this book banned?
Thomas notes that in Krause's list and on other banned books lists, the theme of history is frequently targeted.
"I saw a lot of books by Black authors, authors of color talking about race," says Thomas. "I saw a lot of books by and about queer authors, particularly the more recent lists targeting trans and genderfluid authors. I saw a lot of books weirdly about, like, history ... Books about things I sort of thought were settled history, which was a little shocking to me. It's weird to be like, 'Let's relitigate Ruby Bridges.' "
Hardymon highlights that books about sex and puberty are often banned.
"I noticed one of the books on there was a book about developing bodies in Spanish, [Qué pasa en mi cuerpo? El libro para muchachas by Lynda Madaras]. And I thought, there was something so just like, you would lock the door to so many? ... What an unkind thing to do. That one really—that one killed me."
Banned books that deserve to be read widely
Toni Morrison's novel Beloved has become one of the more discussed banned books in 2021, and it's one of Hardymon's favorites on the banned book lists. "That book was the book that made me realize what fiction could do," she says. "You are going to come out of that experience feeling ... as though you have been off the Earth for a little bit. And once I realized the written word could do that, it unlocked so many doors for me."
Hardymon also recognizes that graphic novels are an entry point into the world of literature for young readers. She cites Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic as a layered but accessible achievement in the genre.
Thomas wants to encourage teachers to consider teaching popular and new books to their classes, not just the books traditionally included in the literary canon.
"I feel like there's this obsession behind teaching kids these books that are important or deemed necessary, and hard to read. Like Jason Reynolds who writes for young people, just loves young people, and he writes great stuff for young people. And I do think that Jason Reynolds's work will last a long time for young people, but also if it doesn't, I think young people now should be reading people who are writing to young people now."
Hardymon and Thomas suggest reading these frequently banned books:
Don't ban books, but do reconsider some
The publicity around banned books lists can provide an opportunity to rethink which books should receive a place of privilege in classrooms.
Hardymon considers William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, the winner of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to be one of those books.
"[William Styron is] a white Southern writer ... He imagined the journey of the enslaved Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia. First of all, it's certainly interesting at maybe a college-level class ... to parse a white writer's attempt at writing the story of enslavement. And in class where maybe you are talking about like, who gets to write what stories, fine. But if you're going to introduce to your students— and let's say we're in high school — you know, a narrative of enslaved life, you wouldn't want to give them, I don't believe, a narrative by a white Southern writer."
Hardymon instead suggested other novels that offer a postmodern look at enslavement written through a Black perspective:
While Thomas acknowledges hers is an unpopular opinion, the commonly banned books that she doesn't love are part of the J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Rowling has been criticized for her tweets that have been called transphobic.
"I recognize that the books are maybe enjoyable, they're maybe good. But for me ... when we talk about students, the term is being co-opted to mean white, straight, cis students. And I don't know that if, in a bigger sense, if we're professing to loving and seeing and supporting all students, that the work of someone who doesn't see, love, and respect all humans and people who have different gender identities, should be the thing that we think and talk about as the greatest thing that ever existed."
Thomas instead suggested authors who write fantasy novels with a young age group in mind, but who also write inclusively: