Expert: Here's what's behind the recent surge in book censorship attempts

·Senior Writer
·11 min read

In schools across the country, hundreds of books are being targeted in a wave of attempted censorship that experts say has no precedent in the 21st century.

According to tracking from the American Library Association, there were nearly as many “challenges” — the ALA’s term for requests to remove books — between Sept. 1 and Dec. 1, 2021, as it normally tracks in an entire year. Republican-controlled legislatures in a number of states are considering or have already passed laws that will make it easier to pull books deemed to be divisive from school curricula and libraries. Conservative activists are spearheading many of the challenges, with the majority of the targeted books focusing on race, sexuality and gender.

Yahoo News spoke to Emily Knox, an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about the recent surge in attempts at book censorship. Knox has researched and written on the topic, including the book “Book Banning in 21st Century America,” in addition to serving on the board for the National Coalition Against Censorship.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Yahoo News: A lot of your work on the type of books that are being targeted right now predates this recent surge. Why do you think these books were targets in the first place, and what do you think has led to the recent uptick as tracked by the ALA?

Emily Knox: If you look at the ALA's list, you'll see that over the past five years, the list of most challenged books has [included] mostly what we call “diverse books.”

I really think what's happening now is that this is a response to several things: the protests after the George Floyd murder; just where we are with the pandemic; the backlash election of Donald Trump; and I think people are moving from federal elections and looking to see what they can do on their local level.

A store display of several books decorated with caution tape and a sign reading: Banned Books.
A display of banned or censored books at Books Inc. independent bookstore in Alameda, Calif., in 2021. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

What are diverse books, and why is access to them considered to be important?

I use the definition from We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that really works on making sure that the publishing industry publishes more diverse books and awards those books. [WNDB defines "diverse" as “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”]

I always use [literature scholar] Rudine Sims Bishop’s reasoning for looking at why [diverse books] matter. She talks about books being mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. Reading authors who are both similar and different from yourself leads to you being a better citizen — to human flourishing. We talk about flourishing and autonomy in our field a lot. That's the purpose of reading.

Are there any trends you see as you look at the challenges to these books that tend to pop up more often than not?

The reasons are not always clear. So with diverse books at the moment, [challengers] are saying things like, “Well, the book is racist," right? But what do they mean by that? What are they actually saying about the world as they wish it to be that this book is not reflecting? And often that is something like, “This book centers on people who are different from what I'm used to seeing,” “This book actually shows how my community is maybe not as welcoming as I thought it was,” or sometimes it's even like, “I just don't believe that these things happen to people.” I heard that most recently about [the Jerry Craft children’s book] “New Kid.”

That’s usually with books that are about BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] people. Books about LGBTQ people are a little different. Those are often coded as sexual.

A woman shown among bookshelves.
A woman browses books at the Maywood Cesar Chavez Library in Maywood, Calif. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

So if a book is about anything related to people who are LGBTQ, it is by definition about sex. And sometimes those books are about sex, but I think that leads to an idea of, what does it mean to be human? How do we discuss sex with our children, or not discuss it really, in this country? What makes sense for us to even talk about?

I think about this like with [Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel] “Gender Queer.” To me the argument about that book is really — or any books about gender identity are really — often about permission structures. The existence of these books means that what some of these people say is, “What if my child starts questioning their identity? Will this book give my child permission to do that?”

You mentioned “New Kid.” When a Texas school district was discussing the removal of it last fall, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed tweeted: “They don’t want their kids to empathize with the Black characters. They know their kids will do this instinctively. They don’t want to give them the opportunity to do that.” Does that ring true to you?

Yes, to a point, but I think it's more complicated than that. What I talk about is what happened after George Floyd was murdered. There were all these protests around the country, including in tiny towns, like the towns near me, that are 98 percent white. And those were often kids outside protesting.

I looked through my local news website and there'd be a protest in some tiny town; there would be no Black people at that protest, and I think that actually made people very nervous. Where had their children learned about this? What made them feel like they could protest this murder? How did they decide to do this? Did they learn this in a book? Did they learn this at school? This wasn't something that we taught them at home.

Two children reading a book.
Two children read a book together at Carter Traditional Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

I think it's really much more about anxiety. I actually think it's not always that they don't want to read about Black people. There are only certain stories that [conservatives] want to be told when you look at these challenges. Often they're bootstrapping, overcoming adversity stories, as opposed to naturalistic, realistic fictional stories about the everyday lives of marginalized people.

The other idea you've explored a lot in your work is that these challenges are “symbolic acts.” Could you explain that?

Well, in our current information world, what does it mean to challenge or ban a book? You can torrent the book or you can get it through Kindle — [banning] it doesn't actually remove the book.

The United States hasn't banned a book since “Ulysses” on the federal government level so you just cannot get it. It's much more about: “What do we value in our community? What values do we impart to future generations?” It’s also about,”I thought all my neighbors agreed with me about these values, and I see that they don't.”

It's not totally symbolic because, of course, there are kids who don't have money or a computer to be able to read these books. But [current censorship movements] don't actually ban the ideas in general, [and] it doesn't really say anything about the United States. It's super-localized. And to me, that's where it is symbolic. It's sort of like a dry county, right? That doesn't really do anything for people actually not drinking.

You referred to this as being local, but what role have social media and some of the organizations helping to coordinate these efforts played in the challenges as you've monitored them?

There have always been conservative groups that have worked together to ban books. But what's happened with social media is that it's much easier to find people who have similar ideas to your own.

The cover of the book Maus layered on top of art from the inside pages.
Cover and inside page of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus." (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Once a book hits the news and you can look very easily to see if that book is available in your own library, and if you don't want it to be available, then you can say something about it. I don't think that [sort of widespread campaign] will happen with Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” [a graphic novel about the Holocaust that was recently removed from the curriculum by a Tennessee school district], but it has happened with other books. It's just much easier to organize with social media.

As you’ve mentioned, the idea of targeting books is not a new one. What are some previous examples of efforts to censor books?

The big one is the Comstock Laws [late 19th century anti-obscenity legislation passed at the federal level]. And then in the early 1980s, with the "Satanic Panic," there were a lot of bannings then. It was kind of at a low ebb for a while, but there were still challenges. “Harry Potter” was on the top of the list for quite a while, so you saw things about witchcraft and the occult.

The switch that we're seeing now is really about the browning of America, and that we will not be a majority white country anymore, plus the loosening of gender roles in general. That's really what we're seeing. So to me it's not that surprising that we have so many book challenges. There are a lot, but in some ways we should have expected it because we are going through such a difficult time in our country right now.

One of the responses to book censorship criticism by those in support of the recent push is to point to the fact that liberals have tried to get books by the likes of Mark Twain and Harper Lee banned. They say this is no different even though this push is coming from conservatives. Is there merit to that claim?

Yes, actually. Harper Lee — and also mostly books that are about stereotypes — have shown up on the list. So if you look to the list on ALA's website, you can see the different books.

One interesting one was the “Little Bill” books [a series of children’s books written by Bill Cosby], because of Bill Cosby, so this goes to: “What does it mean to be an author? Do you deplatform authors who have done terrible things?” A lot of the [challenges] that actually come from the left, interestingly, often come from BIPOC parents who disagree with how their own race or ethnicity is portrayed in a particular book.

Display copies of Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee,
"Go Set a Watchman" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

In Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the Native Americans are called “savage natives,” and there was a challenge in Washington state against that one. The reason why there are not so many challenges from the left is that most of the people in the publishing industry are, of course, more left-leaning than right-leaning, and also there was a huge purge of books in the 1970s, especially children's books. You know, when things like “The Story of Little Black Sambo” and those types of books were removed from general circulation.

For folks who are concerned about efforts to have books challenged like this, what are some steps they can take in their communities?

I find it extremely disheartening that people more to the left tend to cede local politics to people on the right. If you are concerned about this, you should run for your local school board; you should join the library board. I do not believe that protesting is enough. The left tends to really lean on protest as opposed to the everyday work of political change.

The other thing you can do is to join the National Coalition Against Censorship, or donate to them and their Kids’ Right to Read Project, the Freedom to Read Foundation or your local ACLU. There are many, many, many organizations that are on the ground with this.

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is understaffed and cannot respond to all of these [attempts at censorship]. This is work that these organizations have been doing for years, and I'm hoping people will get more interested in supporting those organizations and the work they do, even when this dies down, because there's always something happening. Always. There is a constant need for vigilance. And also just showing up. And if you have kids, have your kids come to the school board meeting to talk and support the teachers and the librarians.

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