Investigating Motivations Behind Banning Books

October, 2023
Tamar Assayag

Contrary to popular belief, censorship is not always an illegal practice in the U.S. Despite appearing to violate the First Amendment, over time, that standard has changed. One of the most striking examples of this is courts legally banning certain books from being distributed in public schools, a measure initially put in place to prevent schools and educational facilities from promoting pornographic content or general obscenity. However, in recent years, many conservative politicians, parents, and community members have been pushing for book bans on stories with content they deem to be too liberal, leading to a steep increase in the amount of book bans. According to the American Library Association, book bannings in the U.S. have been on the rise since 2022, with a 38 percent increase from 2021. Unfortunately, this narrative has become so normalized, but we must shed a light on the harmfulness of banning books, especially for young, impressionable youth who deserve the right to learn about all different types of people, places, and ideas.

Banning books has been a legal practice in the U.S. since 1982, when the Supreme Court ruling in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico stated that in public schools, book bannings can occur when books are deemed “pervasively vulgar.” However, the same court ruling also stated that school districts are forbidden from banning books “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books,” according to the official court case syllabus on Justia U.S. Supreme Court Center. In the early years of book bannings, books such as “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steineck, and “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding were all banned mostly for profanity and sexual content. Although these ideologies were conservative and the books banned have since been recognized as classics, the book banning process was quite a rare one initially, and was, for the most part, exclusive to stories with mature content.

Regardless of how this custom began, in many conservative states and communities, it has since been expanded to include virtually any book with queer themes or characters or themes of race, religion, or diversity. Conservatives have been able to get away with this movement by masking their blatant hatred, homophobia, and racism as concern for children. Last year, more than 45 percent of books challenged contained an LGBTQ+ character or were written by an LGBTQ+ author. Oftentimes, challengers claim that these stories contain sexual content, but that is seldom the case. “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, a harmless graphic novel about a seventh grade girl who participates in her school’s drama club, has been repeatedly flagged for sexual content, simply for its inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters. The book appeared on the American Library Association’s top ten most challenged books of the year five times between 2014 and 2019. Seeing seemingly harmless books such as “Drama” being so harshly ripped apart by bigoted people in power, it isn’t far-fetched to presume that some if not most of these banned books are being wrongfully judged.

Additionally, book bans disproportionately target stories with themes revolving around race and racism. An organization called PEN America Index of School Book Bans reported that between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, 40 percent of books banned had a protagonist or secondary character that was a person of color. It’s been made abundantly clear that those behind these harmful restrictions are intent on silencing minority and marginalized voices, and not on providing children with the resources they need to educate themselves and form their own opinions regarding these topics.

However, this tactic is flawed at best, and ridiculous at worst. An October 2023 report by Advocate uncovered a story in which the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in Madison, Alabama, added a children’s book titled “Read Me a Story, Bella” to their list of soon-to-be-removed books. The plot of the book follows a brother and sister who read stories together. Given its innocent and harmless storyline, you might be wondering what could have possibly led this book to be flagged as containing sexually explicit material. Turns out, the only reason for the restriction on this book was that the book author’s name was Marie-Louise Gay. Not only are people targeting books with actual LGBTQ+ content, but now, even an author’s name can get their stories removed from public libraries. The same report from Advocate also provided a statement from author Alyx Kim-Yohn, who disclosed that oftentimes these book removals occur without a single complaint, and without a further review of the content.

Fortunately, those pushing tirelessly in favor of book bans are the loud minority. In fact, over 70 percent of voters oppose removing books from public libraries, according to a 2022 poll by the American Library Association. In the past few years, the counteractive “reading banned books” movement has gained just as much attraction as the book banning movement. Popular YouTubers and bloggers have resisted the book bans by purposefully reading banned books, and letting their audience know that they should too. Even famous authors such as Stephen King have stood up against this censorship, encouraging young people to “find out what they don’t want you to read” in his tweet from January 2023. The voices creating censorship in the U.S. should never be louder than the ones fighting for complete and correct education for children all across the country. We owe it to kids in conservative states spearheading the book banning frenzy to advocate for their right to access informative and resourceful books that will allow them to explore the world with an open mind.