Like many students, I was required to read Fahrenheit 451 in high school. And while too many years have passed for me to recall the minute details of the plot, I still remember that the overarching story is of a dystopian society that burns books as a form of censorship. While I think most people can agree the past few years have felt dystopian in a way, at least we aren’t burning books… well, at least most of us aren't burning books. But books are being banned in schools across the country in a way they haven’t been for years.
According to NBC News, records show that a group of school districts in Texas reported 75 attempts to censor children’s access to books in the first four months of the current school year, while only one such attempt was made during the same period last year. But the increase in attempted book bans wasn’t garnering much media attention until a school district in Tennessee recently removed the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, which tells the history of the Holocaust, from their curriculum.
The argument in favor of book banning is that we are protecting our children from content deemed inappropriate. In the case of Maus, parents and the McMinn County Board of Education are concerned about “its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”
Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, reportedly said he was perplexed by the decision. “This is disturbing imagery,” he admitted in an interview. “But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”
Those opposing the book bans, including Spiegelman, believe that teaching history—especially the painful parts—in an accurate way is crucial to our children’s education and development. These same people are warning parents and educators that book bans often do more harm than good.
Not to mention that when the stories of book bans come to the forefront of the media the way this has, it typically causes the books to become more accessible. Since the story dropped, Maus has become a best-seller on Amazon and many libraries across the country have vowed to give free copies of the book to any children who want to read it.
But book restrictions don’t start and end with Maus. Some other books being removed from school libraries include Gender Queer, a memoir about gender identity, and The Hate U Give, a novel about a black teenager who witnesses the police shooting of a friend. People are worried books like these are too sexual and too violent and are afraid that reading these books will cause students to question and feel guilty about their identities.
However, “our books are never going to turn someone gay,” says Amanda Darrow, the Director of Youth, Family, and Education at the Utah Pride Center, in a recent interview on the Think Inclusive Podcast. “But what it does, just like any other curriculum or any other teachable moment or learning, is it has you think. It has you question... And we should question it… We need to self-explore as human beings, and just like any other way that we learn in schools, this is what books are for. To teach us.”
I understand everyone’s concerns. It’s important that our students are learning age-appropriate content. But it’s also important that they have access to books that will help them learn, grow, and question the world around them. For some students, the school library is the only space in which they feel safe and these books are the only way for them to learn about race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and the ways in which these identities intersect as well as how marginalized communities have been oppressed throughout history.
As someone who spent middle-school recess sitting in the cafeteria reading books instead of playing on the playground, I can’t imagine the impact of being denied certain books. I consider many of the books I read growing up to have been fundamental in shaping me as a person. To Kill a Mockingbird, required reading for my 8th grade English class, made me think critically about racial oppression for the first time. Looking for Alaska, a book I first read in high school and have read countless times since, helped me process my grief after the death of a friend. And even Fahrenheit 451, which is by no means a favorite of mine, helped me learn about the beauty of reading and the dangers of censorship.
Of course, we want to protect our children. But at what cost? At what point does our protection become censorship that harms instead of helps our students?
Want to support our students? Here are three ways you can help:
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.