In his bestselling novel Talk, author Laurie Halse Anderson wrote, “Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.” Since the American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of American Publishers helped launch Banned Books Week 40 years ago, this dysfunctional family of censorship has sadly grown bigger and louder. In the United States, the past year has seen a skyrocketing rise in book challenges, bans, and other attacks on the right to read and academic freedom.
Most efforts to restrict access to books involve young readers in schools and public libraries. There are recurring themes in these challenges that silence voices outside the so-called “mainstream” of American society. According to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the 10 most challenged books in recent years are written by or about marginalized people, including people of color and LGBTQ authors and characters.
Last spring, PEN America released the results of its first-ever School Book Ban Index, a comprehensive tally of more than 1,500 cases of books banned by some 86 school districts in 26 states, between July 2021 and March 2022, affecting more than 2 million people. students. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported launching 729 book challenges in 2021 alone, targeting nearly 1,600 titles. In both organisations, the number of reports received is only a fraction of the total; many result in the removal of books from shelves without public fanfare or knowledge, and often under a cloud of fear among librarians and staff.
This rise in censorship comes at a time when the United States is in the throes of greater moral panic embodied by a corrosive “cancel culture” that spans the political spectrum from right to left.
Book challenges are not the only problem facing students and our schools. There has also been an increase in legislative efforts to cut curricula, controlling what can and cannot be taught, in at least 36 states. Another PEN America study, “America’s Censored Classrooms,” measured a 250% increase over the past year in what the study calls educational gag orders, legislative efforts to the state to restrict “education on topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities in elementary and secondary and higher education.” All of the bills were started by Republicans in their respective states, with only one Democratic sponsor among them. While many in the GOP speak out against left-wing cancel culture, they seem to be in complete control of what can be read, discussed, and taught in schools nationwide.
Although the country is divided on many topics and issues, overriding views or perspectives with which one disagrees is not the solution. Children should not be taught to fear ideas different from their own. Celebrate Banned Books Week from September 18-24, but stay alert and keep reading banned books year-round.