Banning Books Threatens the Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week is an annual event, typically held the last week of September, celebrating the freedom to read. The celebration sponsored by the American Library Association brings together the larger book/text community including, but not limited to, authors, publishers, librarians, booksellers, journalists, readers of every type—anyone really—who supports the freedom to read what one chooses and the freedom to seek out and speak out ideas without limits.

Display of books with police 'caution' tape draped over them
A display from the San José (California) Public Library marking a Banned Books Week past showing titles that have been banned or censored. (San José Public Library/Flickr)

It started in Plymouth. Those Puritans were more than a little upset with Thomas Morton when he didn’t follow the rules. But when he wrote a three-volume work titled New English Canaan (1637) which includes favorable observations about Native Americans, a celebration of nature, and a critique of Puritan customs and power, they banned his work and exiled the writer. Of course, at that time Plymouth was not yet the United States. Nonetheless, the practice of one group seeking to control access to information and ideas is not a new one in this country.

The next couple hundred years included various efforts to silence voices and control access to information, but many historians consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) the first book to be banned on a national scale. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel was barred from stores by the Confederacy because of its pro-abolitionist agenda and because it evoked heated debates about slavery.

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This post by Lester Laminack originally appeared on Corwin Connect.

Challenging books and attempting to control which ideas are available to the public waxed and waned over the next century. The practice experienced a lull in the more permissive 1960s and 1970s, which saw a dip in the instances of book bans.

Although he did not run on an agenda of book banning, when Ronald Reagan became U.S. president in 1981, his followers were emboldened. The number of book challenges rose to new levels, reaching over 700 per year, a marked resurgence in attempts to control access to books.

This new wave of book challenges prompted the American Library Association (ALA) in 1982 to launch the first Banned Books Week as a celebration of the freedom to read.

And what about now?

In August 2022, USA Today reported that book bans and challenges doubled from 2020 to 2021 with a notable uptick in challenged books over the past year. PEN America reported an unprecedented 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts across 26 different states between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022. Over the past year we have witnessed more coordinated harassment of teachers and librarians. The desire to restrict access, to pull books from curriculum and library shelves is becoming more intense. notes the efforts have moved beyond challenging a single title to shaping public policy.  Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah are among the states that have enacted legislation that limits access to books and other reading materials.

School and classroom libraries are being scrutinized book by book to weed out anything that may be deemed inappropriate. And librarians, teachers, administrators, and vendors may face punitive measures. PEN America reports that many of the books challenged focus on one or more of the following: communities of color, the history of racism in America, LGBTQ characters, books by authors of color or LGBTQ authors, and topics that include sexuality, gender, or history.

Teachers have reported that the books in their classroom libraries have to be reviewed, cataloged on forms, and vetted before being made available to students. All this tension and anxiety can leave us feeling defeated and overwhelmed, but there are many who are pushing back and fighting for the freedom to read.

What are others doing to push back?

Here is a brief list of efforts from across the country:

  • Students are forming banned book clubs.
  • A high school student in Flagler County, Florida led a protest outside a school board meeting and has received national media attention.
  • A group of Texas librarians formed #FReadom Fighters and, among other actions, deluged Texas lawmakers with tweets and emails. See the link in the resource list for several suggestions for responding to challenges.
  • Students have organized protests and have spoken at school board meetings. PEN America offers a tip sheet for students responding to book bans.
  • Parents and teachers have suggested buying banned books as gifts.
  • Red Wine and Blue, a national advocacy network of Democratic suburban parents, holds a weekly training for parents and community members on how to rally other parents, speak at school board meetings, and lobby school board members and school leaders to oppose book bans.
  • A group of parents organized an Amazon wish list of challenged, banned, and diverse books to place in little free libraries throughout the community.
  • Parent-student book clubs have formed to read and discuss challenged or banned books outside of school.
  • Parent groups have organized book clubs with educators to read and discuss the merits of challenged books.
  • Some communities have led petition drives.
  • One Louisiana librarian sued two men for defamation after they accused her of advocating to keep “pornographic” materials in the kids’ section at the parish library.

The final section of this post contains several links to resources – from history of banned books to overviews of legislation to ideas to push back. If you, like me, feel compelled to ensure children see themselves, their peers, and their families in the reading materials at school, these links can be a starting place for action.

Want to learn more about intellectual freedom? Register for the Banned Books Week webinar, hosted by SAGE Publications. Learn more here: https://group.sagepub.com/events-calendar/banned-books-week-webinar


Resources

A Brief History of Book Banning in the US

Banned or Challenged Books and Legislation

Reporting a book challenge to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom or PEN America

Responding to questions/challenges to library resources:

Responding to the book bans:

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Lester Laminack

Lester Laminack, professor emeritus at Western Carolina University, is a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States and abroad. He is the author of over 25 books for teachers and children, with Corwin publishing a new book of his in 2023.

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