The War on Children: Book Banning Explained

If you’re from Vermont or another blue state, you may be tempted to say, well, at least we don’t live in a place where books are being banned.


Unfortunately, you do.


When Texas and Florida imposed censorship over school textbook content years ago, guess what happened? The entire publishing industry caved in and stopped printing anything those states might object to. It wasn’t deemed good business to offend them, so their crazy requirements now control the textbooks our students use in every state.


I co-authored an Introduction to Business textbook for a New York publisher. One of the chapters I worked on was an overview of economics. Naively, I enlisted the help of a friend who taught economics at UMass, where I was also teaching at the time. However, Texas considers UMass a spawn-of-the-devil liberal institution. I was stunned to discover that the publisher secretly hired a Texas author to write an amateurish but radically conservative economics chapter in place of mine—which they snuck into the final version of the book without telling me. They were happy to snub an author but couldn’t risk offending any Texas reviewers.


Lest you think it’s just me complaining, check out a detailed article from a decade ago in The New York Review by Gail Collins: ‘How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks On Us’ (June 21, 2012). She traces the problem to the 1960s when aggressively conservative religious activists Mel and Norma Gerber introduced their Scroll of Shame (it reached 54 pages in length) detailing all their complaints. Soon Texas was censoring textbooks.


Collins concluded that “No matter where you live, if your children go to public schools, the textbooks they use were very possibly written under Texas influence.” It’s even more true now.


Here’s how historian Alex Fitt explains it in a more contemporary piece for The Washington Post: “For publishers, it was not economically viable to write one book to appease campaigners in Texas and a different version to sell elsewhere. The result: Students across the country got books that told U.S. history from the perspective of a small group of White, God-fearing, conservative Texans.”


It’s a well-known secret in academic publishing that Texas has been censoring what our students learn for a long time through their control of textbooks. That’s a culture war the Right won already. Now we’re seeing an unprecedented attack on everything else a student might read. If you know the history, it’s not a stretch to predict that publishers of children's and young adult literature will cave as quickly as the textbook publishers did.


Publishers are already fighting a decline in readership and the rise of competing media–so why would they publish a novel by me, a radical trouble-maker (to a Texas culture crusader at least) who hails from Bernie Sanders's home state and writes about LGBTQ and biracial kids, protagonists with disabilities, and so forth? I’m not trying to piss off book banners in Texas, I’m just trying to write about my own kids and the kids I teach. But that’s not how Texas culture warriors are going to see it, which makes my books far less marketable.


To the publisher, the problem comes down to sellability. Sure, a number of famous, well-established, often-banned titles like To Kill a Mockingbird will continue to be worth publishing–but why take a business risk on new books and authors? It’s bad business, and publishing is in the end just a business, even though it happens to shape our culture.


Back in 2016–before book banning became the firestorm it is now–historian Paul Ringel of High Point University wrote in The Atlantic that:


“Since the 1800s, attitudes about which books are ‘appropriate’ for kids to read have too often suppressed stories about different cultures and life experiences.”


Specifically, he reported, the majority of banned books “feature so-called ‘diverse content’—that is, they explore issues such as race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental illness, and disability.”


It’s easy to wonder, here in my deep blue state, why they care (or hate) so much. It’s not like the schools started out with too many books for diverse kids, or too few books for straight white readers. The imaginary spaces in youth-oriented fiction have always been mostly straight and white. Book banning is aimed at marginalizing already-marginal people. You might think, why bother? But there’s more than books in the cross hairs.


To appreciate just how stunningly huge the book-banning movement’s impact will be, we need to acknowledge what this crusade against so many young citizens is actually about. Many kids are being given the clear message that they are not wanted–that their communities wish to purge them along with the books—but that’s not really the main target. It’s the kids who can be recruited for the radical-right ranks. Many young minds that might have been opened by what they learned from reading will be shut down to new ideas. The goal is to raise as ignorant and prejudiced a generation of white kids as possible while at the same time diminishing and undermining others to keep them feeling like powerless, unworthy outsiders.


Sure, the Supreme Court is lost and everyone’s worried about abortion and other fundamental human rights–but I think the even bigger catastrophe is this fanatical drive to make book-banning the sharp new tip of the culture-war spear. The Crusaders are already shaping the thoughts and beliefs of future generations.


Back in the spring of this year, PEN America reported that they’d identified 1,586 book bans over the past nine months. Coverage of the PEN report in The Guardian explained that “The bans have largely targeted books that focus on race and LGBTQ issues, and a large number of the banned books are written by non-white or LGBTQ authors.”


A Statistica.com report on a survey of school districts shows that Texas banned the largest number of books–nearly a thousand titles during the 2021 school year–followed by Pennsylvania and Florida. But those statistics fell rapidly out of date as school districts, on their own or in response to new state-level laws–pillaged their own bookshelves in preparation for this year’s embrace of what not to read.


For instance, USA Today reported that Tennessee schools physically removed and discarded more than 300 titles in order to eliminate all books with LGBTQ or Black representation. (Book Bans are on the Rise, June 29, 2022)


As kids go back to school, teachers are having to cover their classroom bookshelves with brown paper while they find out how many titles–probably most–are now illegal. There have been numerous articles about teachers and librarians being forced out of their schools and jobs. Towns are defunding public libraries. And now we hear that prosecutors are gearing up to bring criminal charges against teachers and librarians.


It’s all so Fahrenheit 451; a reference to a Ray Bradbury book that I’m willing to bet will not be read by many students this year because if you’re trying to ban books as a means to control people’s thoughts, then the last thing you’re going to allow is a novel in which they do just that. (It is ironic that this 1953 story envisions a future in which books are banned and television screens are gigantic. Welcome to the future!)


The Washington Post points out that “the 2022-2023 school year will usher in a new era of education” in a piece titled, ‘Students lose access to books amid ‘state-sponsored purging of ideas.’ The article details how teachers have to get rid of all books “that mention racism, sexism, gender identity or oppression.”


It quotes John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary (a PAC that is attempting to respond to the bans). He sees “state-sponsored purging of ideas and identities that has no precedent in the United States of America,” and says, “We’re witnessing the silencing of stories and the suppression of information [that will make] the next generation less able to function in society.” But that depends on what society you’re thinking about: A democratic one, or a society that has purged not only books and ideas but also people and lifestyles the Christian Fathers don’t like. If we’re still talking about the so-called real world, why does it feel like we’ve entered into the plot of a dystopian book series?


It’s going to be totalitarian-Big-Brother-spying-on-you terrifying to teach in Missouri under Senate Bill 775, under which, according to an August 26 Kelly Jensen article for Book Riot, “books deemed ‘sexually explicit’ are from now on illegal.


Deemed by whom? Irate parents who can now file complaints with their local Sheriff?


Precisely!


In Oklahoma, Bill 1775 bans ‘critical race theory’, which in practice means any book mentioning the African American experience. But that’s not the worst of it, because they’re also working on a bill that would impose a $10,000 fine on anyone who facilitates a student’s reading of banned books. Teaching is getting a lot more dangerous.


Texas made history this summer with a list of 850 books that used to be standard fare in classrooms and libraries but are now banned–along with the draconian demand that every teacher submit a list of every book allowed within their classroom for “approval” (which often means disapproval). Teachers are in a panic as they work to comply with these new controls, and some have already been disciplined or fired for not being compliant enough.


And then there’s Florida, where the Parental Rights in Education Bill, widely known as the Don’t Say Gay law, is a model for other states that want to impose sweeping, arbitrary, top-down control over what teachers can say in their classrooms.


But I’m actually most worried about what Utah is doing. It’s adopted such perfect double-speak that it outdoes any dystopian novel and shows how you can control books and people by being vague and giving censors huge latitude. Their House Bill 374 is officially called–get this–Sensitive Materials in Schools. You see where this is going, right? According to the Book Riot article, “The bill allows the state’s Attorney General to instruct education workers about what is and is not sensitive material and provides a mechanism for parents to file formal complaints about school material.”


The Utah law is a truly terrifying development because it imposes ever-tightening book bans and penalties and makes it impossible for teachers, librarians, students, or parents to know what’ll be illegal next. Better just box up and remove books now, rather than run the risk of getting fined and fired for having them in the classroom next semester.


Let’s roll forward a generation to when we have a nation of young adults who were educated under a Fahrenheit 451-style regime of, let’s call it what it is, mind control, motivated by a strong intention to put corrupt, greedy, predatory Cristian-zealot white men in charge of what can be read, taught, and even talked about–not to mention the problem of who is even allowed to be themselves at school.


The plan is far bigger than banning books they don’t like. It’s about a Crusade to ‘take’ the nation ‘back’. If you want to wage and win a culture war, the place to start is at school, and the people to target are tomorrow’s voters. It comes down to the deepest and most insidious secret of these book bans, which is that children are ever so much easier to manipulate and control than adults.


In some ways, the war is already lost. There’s no hope for textbooks, which have long since fallen entirely under their control. (The solution to the textbook problem is a challenging one, by the way: We need to develop alternative texts.)


Now, with the rapid spread of book bans, the publishing industry is going to cave in and tamp down on the small amount of minority-oriented literature they currently offer. So it comes down to people outside the schools and the publishing industry to find new ways to bring diverse, real, supportive reading to students.


I’m not sure what that will look like, but probably starting with strong support for independent publishers and bookstores (and not buying from online major stores and large publishers that cave in?). And we must now offer kids alternative spaces to read, since they cannot read freely at school anymore and their local libraries are closing or being censored too. After-school programs run by nonprofits and community groups, not beholden to government and the church, for a start? Home-study groups that are not just for full-time homeschoolers but also as a vigorous supplement to censored classroom experiences?


The first step is to acknowledge that our children have been under emotional and intellectual attack in insidious but effective ways for decades already–and that the new wave of book bannings, along with teacher harassment and intimidation, is a ramp-up of the sweeping, long-term Crusade to fundamentally change our nation into one we won’t recognize unless we’ve been reading too many dystopian novels.


Why hasn’t the Left already started a major counter-offensive or at least a real defense on a national scale? Maybe we’re too preoccupied with just trying to hold onto partial power on the adult stage—in legislative bodies across the nation and in D.C.—to notice that the Right has launched a full-scale invasion of our children's hearts and minds and is meeting remarkably little resistance as they roll across schools, libraries, and communities nationwide.



Alex Hiam, the author of Silent Lee and the Side Door Key, teaches creative writing and writes fantasy adventure stories for teens and tweens from his home in the Brattleboro area of Vermont. Available through your local bookstore or Amazon.




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