When considering how to advocate for the retention of challenged books, it helps to take a page from targeted authors. Their advice includes a simple idea: don’t cede control of the narrative. Focus on the benefits of the books – rather than expending too much energy in rebutting spurious challenges – and make challengers own what they’re really asking for.
Calls for banning books often hinge upon on misrepresenting books: taking elements out of context, insinuating meanings, or neglecting their merits. This was one takeaway of a Mar. 29 webinar presented by Penguin Random House last month titled “Banned Books: When Books Are Threatened, Where Do We Turn?”
At the event, Ibram X. Kendi said politicians often misrepresent works that ask readers to think critically about history and racism by portraying them as “anti-white.” Kendi is author of How to be an Antiracist, a memoir that considers how to move from awareness of racism to building an antiracist society.
“They can’t engage directly with what we’re writing. So they have to change the argument, then argue against the argument they created,” said Kendi.
Many of the challenges come from a place of unfounded fear, according to Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project.
“They believe the more children are exposed to is corrosive, is corruptive. If a child reads about a gay child, that child may become gay. If a white child reads about slavery, they may think we don’t have white heroes,” said Hannah-Jones at the event.
Admittedly, challenges can increase a book’s popularity by bringing it into the public eye.
“A book challenge is like a community attacking itself. The people who are hurt in a challenge are the marginalized readers in the community where the challenge takes place,” e said.
Plus, challenges create a hostile environment that has a chilling effect on authors as they take on extra work to preempt challenges or finesse material that some call objectionable. This impact disproportionately affects writers who are BIPOC, queer, or from other marginalized groups whose works are more commonly targeted.
“They can’t engage directly with what we’re writing. So they have to change the argument, then argue against the argument they created.”– Ibram X. Kendi
At the webinar, fiction author Nic Stone described how her writing has changed after her debut novel was challenged.
“[I’ve become] maybe more strategic craft-wise. I’ve been trying to make books as un-bannable as possible. It means having to do a better job with nuance, massage a bit more, or be more creative with the language and structure.”
Stone’s book Dear Martin, a young adult novel about a black honor student’s exploration of navigating racism after an experience of police violence, has been challenged for profane language.
Regarding nonfiction, Kendi said he put considerable extra work into verifying and citing information in his forthcoming book, How to Raise an Antiracist.
“I can’t prevent that book from being distorted, but I can prevent something from being factually incorrect or not adequately sourced. So this book – it’s for teachers and parents – is the shortest book I’ve ever written, and it has 60-70 pages of notes,” he said.
Turning the Tables
Rebutting challenges centers the conversation around the portions of a book that some people deem problematic. This takes energy and focus away from the purpose the books serve and the potential good they can do. These components are easily lost in the uproar, but they are vital to include in a full assessment of books.
A prime example occurred last October, when Texas State Representative Matt Krause sent a letter asking Texas school libraries to investigate their spending on over 850 books as part of an inquiry into “school district content”. The letter asked the libraries to review their collections for books that may cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
Krause’s letter did not say what he intended to do with the information, or ask the libraries to act upon the flagged books. It did not even say these books are inappropriate. But simply flagging books that pertain to race or sexuality as under a shadowy “inquiry” is a lazy yet effective way to cast aspersions on their content.
“We can’t protect our children from all things that make them uncomfortable. That’s part of growth, of being human.”– Nikole Hannah-Jones
Included on the list is This is Your Time, written by Ruby Bridges, which describes her experience as the first black child to integrate a formerly all-white elementary school in New Orleans. In addition to the challenges she faced, she also talks about the people – black and white – who rallied around her to support her.
At an April 7 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to discuss book banning at schools and libraries, Bridges testified that her book was intended to address glaring omissions in school curricula.
“There was no black history back then. And the textbooks we used were obsolete then, and they are still obsolete today… rarely do children of color or immigrants see themselves in these textbooks we are forced to use. I write because I want them to understand the contributions their ancestors have made to our great country, whether that contribution was made as slaves or volunteers,” said Bridges at the hearing.
Krause may insinuate that this book could make children uncomfortable. But discomfort does not equal harm. Sometimes it is essential for education.
“We can’t protect our children from all things that make them uncomfortable. That’s part of growth, of being human,” said Hannah-Jones at the Random House event.
“If we are to ban books from being too truthful, then surely, we must ban those books that distort or omit the truth.”– Ruby Bridges
At six years old, Ruby Bridges was able to navigate a swath of egg-throwing, jeering protesters each day to go to school and learn – far more than should ever have been asked of her. But it is outrageous to suggest that today’s children are not even up to the task of reading about her experience.
To get to the heart of the matter, reclaim the narrative by fighting insinuation with solidity. Make clear that objecting to books about black history is anti-history. Call out the potential harms: sheltering white children from books that could cause “discomfort” is an expression and perpetuation of white fragility.
“We fail kids when they can’t see information that makes adults uncomfortable. When they enter the workforce, they won’t be prepared to interact with people,” offered Stone at the webinar.
In her congressional testimony, Bridges spoke against banning books. But for those who insist, she called for a fair review of all books – not just those on a congressman’s hit-list.
“If we’re going to have a conversation about banning books, then I say that conversation is long overdue. Let’s have it. But it must include all books. If we are to ban books from being too truthful, then surely, we must ban those books that distort or omit the truth,” she said.
Emily Cukier is a Science Librarian at Washington State University. Her interests include biology/life sciences, chemistry, human health and pharmacotherapy, data librarianship, and research ethics. Before coming to WSU, she has worked as a Senior Writer for BioCentury, a pharmaceutical trade publication, and as a nonproprietary naming consultant to the pharmaceutical industry.