spread of book ban

Book-ban efforts in the US have grown over the years from relatively isolated fights aimed at works about sexual and racial identities. Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth Harris cover the publishing industry. I spoke to him about what’s behind this trend.

Claire: How did efforts to ban the book become so widespread?

Alexandra: We’ve seen it go from a school or community issue to a really polarizing political issue. Before, parents could hear about a book as their child brought home a copy; Now, complaints about inappropriate content go viral on social media, and this leads to more complaints in schools and libraries across the country.

Elected officials are also turning book bans into another nail issue in the culture wars. Last fall, a Republican representative in Texas compiled a list of 850 books that he argued contained inappropriate material in schools and included books about sexuality, racism, and American history. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned on the issue by arguing that parents, not schools, should control what their children read. Democrats have also held onto the issue through congressional hearings about rising book restrictions.

And, sometimes, disputes turn into something more dangerous. The Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of street fighting, appeared in the drag-queen-hosted Story Hour for Families at a library in San Lorenzo, Calif.

Why do parents and conservatives want these restrictions?

Alexandra: For some parents, it’s about keeping kids from reading certain things. Others want to introduce certain topics – such as LGBT rights or race – to their children themselves.

A lot of people I’ve talked to say they don’t consider the sanctions they want to be racist or bigoted. They say that the books contain specific material that they feel is not suitable for children, and they sometimes point to explicit excerpts. But librarians we speak to say that the most challenging books across the country are basically those about Black or Brown or LGBT characters.

In Texas, residents sued a library after a library official removed books from shelves based on an elected official’s list. They weren’t all children’s books; The list included Ta-Nehi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendy.

It’s hard to separate the ban’s boom from other conservative efforts to use the government to limit expression, with critics calling Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. They are all movements that have overlapped and inspired book-banning debates.

Elizabeth: The book ban is part of a wider political context at the moment, of extreme polarization, heightened political tensions, and the amplification of certain messages by the types of media – social or otherwise – that people consume.

Have you ever tried to impose a ban?

Elizabeth: In Virginia Beach, a local politician sued Barnes & Noble over two books, “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe, and “A Court of Mist and Fury,” a fantasy novel. This legislator wants Barnes & Noble to stop selling these titles to minors. The suit probably won’t be successful. But it’s an escalation: The issue went from thinking people shouldn’t read certain books to their kids, to trying to stop other people’s kids from reading certain books.

I understand why some conflicts about reading in school are so intense: by definition, teachers are choosing which books children are going to read – and not – and parents can’t always agree. Huh. Trying to get books from libraries sounds different, yes?

Elizabeth: When people are trying to push a book out of the library, they decide for everyone’s sake that no one has access to a particular book. But librarians are trained to present multiple perspectives. For them, it is a matter of professional ethics to ensure that the perspective of one individual or a group is not determining what everyone reads.

Elizabeth: A ban on books can also be harmful to children who identify with the story lines in books that are banned in their communities. The question for the child becomes, “What’s wrong with me?”

How is the librarian responding?

Alexandra: It’s heartbreaking for them. Librarians say they came to the area because they had a passion for reading and talking to people about books. Some have left their jobs; Some have been fired for refusing to remove the books. Others left after being subjected to a barrage of insults on social media.

A librarian in Texas quit after 18 years because he was harassed online. She moved out of state and took a job in tech.

What will happen next?

Elizabeth: As long as the midterm is ahead of us the movement is not going away. And the school year will begin just as election season is really heating up, so the two can add fuel to this fire.

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