On Banning Books
This will shock no one, but we are absolutely, totally, 100% against banning books. And, frankly, we’re horrified that we still live in a time where this is something we even have to say.
By now, you’ve most likely heard about the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee’s “removal” of Maus by Art Spiegelman from its school curriculums.
Maus is a graphic novel about the Holocaust. It’s part memoir, part biography, part history, and part fiction too, but it’s all based in truth. In it, the Jewish people are mice and the Germans are cats (other countries get other animal roles assigned to them as well.) It’s not a fun read, but it’s a wildly important one. The book is frequently used to help middle-school students understand the horrors of those years through a medium that’s familiar and accessible to them – and it does it so well, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
As the Holocaust Museum itself puts it: “Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors.”
In this great article, “What Kids Lose When They Don’t Read Books Like Maus,” author Brittany Wong quotes a parent on Twitter: “When my son was 12, he was not academic, rarely read a book unless forced by a teacher, but loved ‘Maus’ books and spoke to me so intelligently and compassionately about the Holocaust and the impact it must have had on his Jewish friends’ families.” That’s important. That’s something to be celebrated.
On January 10th of this year, the McMinn County Board of Education voted unanimously to remove Maus from the school’s education system, citing things like profanity and mentions of murder, violence, and suicide (oh, and a naked picture… of a mouse…). They believe that it is not age-appropriate for middle-school students. This decision was immediately met with intense criticism, and Maus rose to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list. A comics shop in Tennessee started giving away free copies to any student who wanted one. To be fair, the board issued this statement:
“We do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust. To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion. The atrocities of the Holocaust were shameful beyond description, and we all have an obligation to ensure that younger generations learn of its horrors to ensure that such an event is never repeated.”
But, as Spiegelman himself noted, you get the impression that the board members are asking “why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”
This isn’t the first time this has happened, obviously, but it’s just one instance in what’s starting to look like a very disturbing trend. The American Library Association says it has seen an “unprecedented” number of book bans in the last year. Unprecedented. The books receiving the most challenges? Those that have to do with race, queer experience, and diversity.
A lot of what’s happening is referred to as the “soft ban”: someone complains, or a librarian is worried someone will, and a book just quietly disappears from the shelves. To quote Kara Yorio: normal book banning “can be quite dramatic, with petitions, public outcry, media coverage. Not infrequently, it also means a boost in attention and sales for a book that otherwise would not have been as visible,” whereas “[s]oft censorship is more insidious and can be more dangerous, as it happens without people knowing and can’t be proven.”
Some of this uptick has to do with Covid – when parents were with their children more at home, they became more familiar with what they were reading; some of it has to do with the rapid spread of information on social media; some of it has to do with the current political climate, particularly the blow up over teaching “critical race theory” and trying to ban ANY teaching materials that are “used to spread radical and racist ideologies to students” (*screams into pillow*) Part of it is that the world has become a meaner, more divided, less tolerant place in the last few years.
But it’s never okay to ban books, to shield children from histories they must learn, or to deny them access to worldviews that don’t match up with their parents or teachers and the right to learn compassion for those who are different from the way they are.
We’re proud to say that we have been exposed to a heck of a lot of banned books. We’re especially proud that we both read over 20 of the most commonly challenged books in the US in K-12 school as part of classwork (21 for Brittany, 29 for Sara – serious kudos to our former teachers.)
And here’s the thing: as folklorists, we’re extremely interested in the unofficial. The unspeakable. The countercultural. The things that slip beneath everyone’s notice. The things that no one pays attention to. In the process of bringing those important things to light, a lot of books get banned, at least at first. People don’t want to see. But that’s exactly why they have to.
Want to read a banned book that’s at least a bit folklore-y? We got you. Try –
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
- Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- The His Dark Materials Series by Phillip Pullman
- Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Just keep in mind that all of those books are VERY different!
So we want to end by saying it as clearly as we can: if you are on the side of banning books, you are on the wrong side. Think about what you’re doing. And if you’re still worried about “the children,” think about this: compassion is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, but it’s also one of the greatest things you can teach them.
Articles Referenced In This Post:
“Why Are Certain Books Being Banned in the US?” by Anthony Zurcher (BBC)
“Read The Books That Schools Want To Ban” by Emma Sarappo (The Atlantic Monthly)
“What Kids Lose When They Don’t Read Books Like Maus“ by Brittany Wong (The Huffington Post)
“Not Quite Banned: Soft Censorship That Makes LGBTQIA+ Books Disappear” by Kara Yorio (School Library Journal)