(Note: This editorial originally appeared in the August, 2022 edition of Children’s Book Insider, the Children’s Writing Monthly)
Laura recently hosted an episode of the Kidlit Social featuring the founders of #FReadom Fighters, a group of Texas librarians pushing back against an effort by state legislators seeking to ban certain books from libraries. (You can watch it here: writeforkids.org/blog/kidlitdistancingsocial82)
The response was overwhelmingly positive. The nominal bit of pushback we received, however, argued that the proposed book bannings were intended solely to keep explicit pornographic imagery out of school libraries, and that those pushing back against censorship were doing so for purely political reasons.
We take feedback from our readers very seriously, so I want to use this as an opportunity to share a few thoughts on the matter.
Are We Actually Arguing About the Same Thing?
We live in a highly politicized age. And, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, we are subject to media outlets and politicians who find it far easier to provoke and inflame us, rather than unite and connect us.
One way they do this is by creating alternate framings of certain issues that may distort the actual subject at hand. In this particular case, we are told that a group of Texas legislators are fighting to keep obscene and pornographic material out of the hands of children.
Positioned that way, it’s hard to find fault. Of course children shouldn’t see explicit pornographic imagery. And, if we were giving exposure to a group of librarians who believe kids should be able to access hardcore pornography, we certainly would leave ourselves open to warranted criticism.
It’s fair game to debate whether certain books are age-appropriate, or provide good-faith discussions of sensitive topics. But that’s not what’s happening in Texas.
The reality of the Texas situation (and others around the country) is that the use of the word “pornography” is wildly misleading. And, because the framing of a topic is much easier to share and disperse than the actual matter of the topic, the framing typically wins out in setting the agenda.
The movement to ban library books stems from a Texas politician named Rep. Matt Krause. Have a look at the books he and his colleagues have targeted to ban (bit.ly/tx-booklist).
You’ll quickly see it’s about far more than pornographic sexual material.
Here are some of the books included on the proposed ban list:
- Racial Justice in America: Topics for Change
- The Confessions Of Nat Turner by William Styron
- The Cider House Rules
- The Abortion Battle: Looking At Both Sides
- It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families
- They Called Themselves The K.K.K.: The Birth Of An American Terrorist Group
- The Ultimate Guys’ Body Book: Not-So-Stupid Questions About Your Body
- October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard
- The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences
- Respecting The Contributions Of LGBT Americans
- Eyes On Target Inside Stories from the Brotherhood of the U.S. Navy Seals
- Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel
- Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics
- Launching Our Black Children for Success: A Guide for Parents of Kids from Three to Eighteen
- Peaceful Fights For Equal Rights
- Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America
- An African American and Latinx History of the United States
- The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears
- The Handmaid’s Tale
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
- A High Five for Glenn Burke (a novel inspired by the first openly gay Major League baseball player)
- Race and the Media In Modern America
As you leaf through 16 pages of book titles, it becomes pretty clear that this isn’t really about “pornographic” books at all — it’s about preventing young people from being exposed to ideas that fall outside the political beliefs of certain people.
We’re talking about books that simply acknowledge things like homosexuality, race, discrimination, treatment of Native Americans and sexuality as topics worthy of age-appropriate discussion.
For one to consider a book featuring a gay baseball player or a book about the Native American Trail of Tears to be pornographic, one has to see the ideas in the books as obscene. If you do, that is your right as an American. But no one has the right, particularly via the government, to impose that conclusion on anyone else. Especially in public schools or libraries.
How we understand and relate to one another, and how we, as a society, move forward on issues of individual liberties, personal bodily autonomy, racial equality, gender equality and other fundamental issues will determine whether we have a successful society in the future — or a future at all.
The way to do that is by trusting teachers and librarians to do the job they were trained for — giving balanced, age-appropriate treatment to these topics with a wide range of viewpoints. They can’t do that if half of those viewpoints are banned.
(And yes, this does go both ways. Intolerance and illiberalism can come from the left as well. No one is immune from the notion that they, and only they, know what’s best for everyone else.)
Is the Problem What’s in the Books — or that the Books Exist At All?
You may or may not be of the opinion that homosexuality is an acceptable topic for young readers. And you may or may not be of the opinion that discussing the treatment of minorities and Native Americans throughout American history may be too guilt-inducing for white students to endure.
Again, you’re absolutely free to have those opinions. But you don’t get to decide things for everybody else.
What we can debate is how we go about addressing these vitally important issues in our nation. But we can’t just erase half of the conversation because it might make a child feel anxious or upset about what happened in the past, or because those books don’t align with a particular political, religious or cultural view we may have.
We all should feel anxious and upset about some of the things in our history, just as we should feel proud and patriotic about many other things. But, in either case, we — no matter our color or political affiliation — are not personally responsible for any of those events, and deserve neither credit nor blame.
We are, however, responsible for addressing the impact of those troubling events, just as we are responsible for carrying on the grand traditions that have made America a great nation.
And the way to do that is to introduce different viewpoints to our children, so they understand that history and culture are narratives, and narratives can be written from many viewpoints. Just providing one viewpoint does our children a disservice and guarantees that our society will continue to be torn into pieces.
One Event, Multiple Viewpoints. What is the “Truth”?
As a kid, I was told Columbus discovered America. It was only many years into adulthood when I thought “Wait, how can we say a place where millions of people were already living was ‘discovered’?”
But that’s what happens when only one viewpoint — in this case, the European viewpoint — is offered. No one in Europe knew the place existed so, in their minds, it was a new discovery. Now we know that there are always two sides to history, and the story of Columbus takes on a very different tone when told from the perspective of the millions of people who were already here and whose way of life was about to be altered forever.
Both sides are true, from the perspective of the people who wrote them, so let’s teach both and use critical thinking to suss out the ultimate truth. That’s what education should be about, not indoctrination into one way of thinking about things.
The books I listed above — the books these Texas legislators seek to ban — are not pornographic. Rather, they are books that provide a different viewpoint.
What This Means for Writers
For authors, it can sometimes feel as if we are under attack from all sides. We live in an age where everyone is on high alert, everyone has staked out a position and nuance is a distant memory.
As we sit down to craft our work, we cannot help but feel the weight of potential landmines that may await us. Am I practicing cultural appropriation? Do I have the right to give voice to a character whose ethnicity or culture differs from my own? Am I expressing ideas some parents (or legislators) may take issue with? Will I be attacked for promoting an “agenda”?
And even “If this gets published, could I actually be putting myself at personal risk?”
Those are heavy, heavy questions, and there are no pat answers. But free societies only remain that way if people fearlessly express, distribute, and, if need be, defend a wide range of views and ideas.
There are certainly things you can do to to avoid many of the issues that could end up putting you in a harsh spotlight:
First, find the answer to this vital question:
If someone takes offense to the content of this book, would it be based on a legitimate concern, or would it be purely political or cultural grandstanding?
That’s probably not a question you can answer on your own, so start some conversations with the people around you. Most importantly, try to find some folks who have opposing social or political viewpoints and run the idea past them. If you don’t know anyone like that, think about where you might find them.
Nonprofit organizations, religious institutions, colleges, and media outlets are fertile territory for discovering people who hold viewpoints that represent the audience who may take issue with your work.
A friendly email or letter asking to open a brief but important dialog could open the door to a positive and enlightening discourse. (Something we could use a whole lot more of.)
You’ll likely get one of these results:
- What you thought would be problematic turns out to be no big deal. If so, carry on and write.
- You discover that there are reasonable objections to be had, and you rework your story to overcome them.
- You hear objections, but they seem unreasonable, reactionary or ideological. In this case, you can seek more feedback to determine whether those objections can be rightfully ignored.
Some Tools at Your Disposal
If you’re writing a book outside of your own cultural experience, use the tools available to you to bypass potential trouble. Sensitivity readers are a fantastic resource to help ensure fair and accurate representations (visit bit.ly/3PHaj9n for more on this topic). Our workshop The Courage to Write Outside Your Own Experience with Teresa Funke is a phenomenal guide to give you tools and courage to break out of your cultural comfort zone. (Get more details here: bit.ly/3ciGDRw)
If you’re writing about hot-button cultural or political issues, it’s always worth the time to visit with your local school or public librarian. They’re on the front line of the censorship battle and can provide up-to-the-minute input on the bumps you may encounter.
The Structure for Assuring Fairness Is Already in Place. Use It.
The purpose of this discussion is not to generate a debate about LGBTQIA+, Black Lives Matter, abortion, religion or any other subject matter. Goodness knows there’s more than enough screaming and yelling out there already.
Rather, we share these views because of the people we ultimately serve — children’s writers, and the children and parents they reach — and our desire to see sane, rational discussion and compromise replace banning, canceling and government intervention to address differences in opinion.
So here is our plea:
If, as a parent or citizen, you have a concern with how a particular subject is being taught, or whether the balance of available information fairly represents all sides, don’t empower a politician to ban books.
Rather, reach out and start a respectful conversation with librarians, school administrators and your child’s teacher. You may learn something, the person you’re conversing with may learn something and you might just create constructive change.
It is not the job of the government to pick and choose the viewpoints that introduce our children to our past and our present. It is, however, the job of teachers, parents and librarians to assure that a broad selection of reputable and age-appropriate material is available to kids, and that someone is there to help them absorb, make sense and synthesize this information into a world view that is fact-based, empathetic, decent and honorable.
I hope that’s something all of us can agree upon.
Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
All the best,
Jon Bard, Co-Owner of Children’s Book Insider
Tags: book bannings, censorship