It’s banned book week, an annual “celebration” of books that are commonly removed from shelves in libraries and schools. This year, perhaps more than any time in the past eighty years or so, it’s a reminder that we need to defend our rights to access books and narratives we deem fit for ourselves.
Government censorship and concentrated campaigns to limit access to books—and subsequently knowledge—have a long history. They usually tie back to control of the populace, to keep them uneducated and in line.
After all, knowledge is power.
Book Banning Activities Are on the Rise
Perhaps most noticeable in the US, but in almost every country around the world right now, we’re seeing a rise in right-wing activities. In concert, there are also more book “bans.”
Now, the government is not banning most of these books, per se. In many cases, “concerned citizens,” often parents, challenge the books. Government book banning is rarer since the mid-twentieth century, as many societies have become more liberal and open. As an example, governments in the UK, the US, and Canada banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, an early twentieth-century novel. It’s much harder to find books that have been banned at the governmental level since the 1940s in Western democracies.
That doesn’t mean book censorship doesn’t happen. Most often, censorship takes the form of a “ban” from the shelves of libraries. Libraries are public institutions, and governments fund them. Many also exist in schools, which are also public institutions. Taxpayer dollars fund many schools.
Taxpayers have some say in what their dollars fund. Thus, it makes sense that citizens challenge books that appear on library shelves. Why are the libraries spending money on these particular books? It’s a fine question to ask.
In the last five to ten years, we’ve seen a significant rise in the number of challenges brought against schools and libraries. Often, a handful of individuals submit high numbers of challenges. In some states and school districts, teachers have to select from approved lists of books to have in their classrooms. They cannot build their own libraries.
A Chilling Lawsuit: Book Banning for Booksellers
Library shelves are increasingly dictated by policy, often directed at the governmental level. In the US, we’ve seen lawsuits against booksellers—privately held companies that sell books. The goal is to restrict the sale of certain kinds of books.
That kind of lawsuit should give us all pause. While we need some regulation on private businesses, dictating what books can be sold is dangerous territory. It smacks of the Hayes Code in film during the 1950s. Films before the Code, many from the 1920s and 1930s, showed all kinds of things that would seem better suited to TV in the 1980s: sex, violence, and so on. When the Hayes Code arrived, it created a kind of censorship. You simply couldn’t put that stuff in film any longer.
Sales bans on certain books—or even certain kinds of books—might create a similar “moral code” in publishing. That limits the kind of books that are available. In turn, that limits the available narratives on certain topics—or even knowledge on some subjects.
Sex Ed., Birth Control, and Queerness in Their Sights
Queer books are often the target of book banning. Usually, these books rouse complaints of “inappropriateness,” whether due to the age bracket the book is aimed at or the supposed “sexual” nature of the subject matter. This isn’t exclusive to queer books, though. Recently, SJM’s books caught heat, basically for being “smutty.”
Other books that are challenged often contain “sexual” content as well. Books on sex education or birth control also commonly face challenges. Books portraying racism are another target, as part of the backlash against CRT. Fictional books and non-fiction titles alike are targeted in this category. School libraries commonly pull Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, while textbooks have been tossed from classrooms for discussing slavery as historical fact.
“Think of the Children!”
What is the point of this? If you ask the folks doing the challenging, it’s an effort to “keep children safe.” In their words, children are stumbling across these books that contain uncomfortable or age-inappropriate information.
While ensuring things like pornography don’t fall into children’s hands, there is no reason kids can’t read And Tango Makes Three, which is a picture book based on the true story of two male penguins at a zoo who were incubating a rock together. The couple was given a real egg, which they successfully hatched—and thus baby Tango joined their family.
If the penguins were male and female, there would be no reason to challenge or pull this book. The objection is that the two penguins are male—or gay—and that is somehow inappropriate sexual material for young children.
Some groups consider “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” inherently sexual, but only if they’re queer. Heterosexual and cisgender identities are de-sexualized—even when we get jokes about baby boys being “boob men” because they’re breastfed. Yet if we were to joke about baby girls being into boobs, that’s somehow wrong.
Pushing Knowledge Underground
The real point of banning books is to push certain kinds of knowledge into the shadows. This includes knowledge about queer people. The idea is that if children don’t know queer identities exist, they won’t be queer.
This is patently untrue and we know that. Queer children have always existed, even when they were unable to express their queerness. Usually, that leads to heightened feelings of depression and hopelessness. Giving kids words for what they feel—or even know—themselves to be doesn’t make kids queer. It gives them the opportunity to express their true selves.
Some people don’t like that, for a variety of reasons.
Abstinence-Only Education Doesn’t Work–and That’s the Point
Similarly, people challenge books that cover sex ed. or birth control, because that information is “inappropriate.” Small children don’t need to know about sexual intercourse, sure. But they do need to know the proper names for their body parts. They need to understand consent. Giving them this kind of knowledge allows them to articulate boundaries—and to communicate when those boundaries have been violated.
The people pushing against this knowledge want kids to be incapable of communicating that they’ve been abused by adults. How this keeps kids safe is a mystery. The crimes still happen. The difference is simply that nobody talks about them.
We might say something similar about other sex ed and birth control books. The knowledge in these books is “dangerous” because it gives people a better understanding of reproductive health. From there, they can be in control of their bodies and their families. Some people are opposed to that.
Yet we know that withholding information about sex tends to increase the rate of teenage pregnancy, as well as STDs. Denying people access to information about birth control leads to plenty of terrible outcomes—back-alley abortions, child abandonment, and so on.
Withholding knowledge about racism and slavery, among other historical wrongs, similarly serves a sociopolitical purpose. It allows individuals and governments to ignore that history or even continue perpetrating it. Arguments for banning books that push this kind of knowledge usually focus on how “uncomfortable” it might make white people. Efforts to ban these books seek to suppress the knowledge of how Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities have been treated—which makes it much more difficult to advocate for both change and reparation.
Book Banning Is Always about Suppressing Knowledge
Banning books is almost always about suppressing knowledge associated with that book. It is usually positioned as “benign.” Governments or institutions position themselves as “protecting” the population from something “dangerous.”
Yet the danger threatens those already in power. They want to maintain their power. The knowledge in banned books often contains seeds that could be used to sow discontentment with the status quo.
If people realized how terribly Indigenous Peoples in Canada have been treated, would more people not demand that we do better? If people don’t realize that children in residential schools were stolen from their families, beaten and raped, and even experimented on, it’s much easier to ignore that legacy. It’s much easier to characterize Indigenous people as “lazy drunks” or “violent criminals,” rather than people who have been horribly abused for centuries, who carry with them the scars of their ancestors, handed down as intergenerational trauma.
If we suppress knowledge about slavery and red-lining in the US, about how Central Park was built over a Black community that was razed, and so on, then it’s much easier for people to ignore how much that status quo needs to change. And it’s much easier for those in power to maintain their grip on it.
Yes, Romance Can Be Radical
And yes, this applies even to smutty heterosexual romance books like SJM’s. I’m not a fan, but smutty romance novels have been doing something for female readers for quite some time now. These books allow readers to dream of better romances, better relationships, and better sex.
Romance novels, as much as they can cater to patriarchy and misogyny, have always had a feminist streak—and that may be one reason they’re so popular. They promise liberation from “the real world” where women are supposed to accept subpar or even abusive relationships, to lie back and think of England, where the man is always the one with power. In a romance novel, the heroine usually has the ability to put the hero on his knees—whether he’s begging for forgiveness, proposing, or performing cunnilingus.
In short, romance novels are often radical—and thus they are dangerous.
We All Need to Fight Back Against Book Banning
The long and short of this is that book banning is never benign. The Catholic Church wasn’t benign when it suppressed works by Copernicus and Galileo, which taught that the Earth goes around the Sun. They weren’t “protecting the people”—they were protecting themselves and clinging to power.
Every time you see a book being challenged, ask yourself why that particular book would be banned in today’s climate. Who has challenged it and why? Who stands to gain if this book is banned? And who stands to lose?
Picking up a “banned book” is one way to show support. Attending meetings—if there are any— about proposed bans or submitting counterclaims can be another. Protest comes in many forms—from buying a “banned” book and reading it, to making it available, to advocating for everyone’s right to choose what is appropriate for them to read.
Knowledge is power, and books—even fictional ones—are often a gateway to that knowledge. Making knowledge freely accessible is not wrong. Each of us can then be responsible for how we choose to interact with that knowledge.
Book bans “nanny state” all of us, with the goal of keeping citizens in the dark. Because, as everyone knows, the most dangerous citizen is an educated one.