Should Banned Books Be Allowed on School Library Shelves?

Banned books week is September 18-24, 2022

Like being part of a movement? Then you may want to join this one: buying and reading banned books. This month, bookstores across the country are displaying and promoting those books that are labeled as “banned” – still able to be purchased but challenged because of certain explicit content.

At the head of this movement is the American Library Association (ALA). For 146 years, the ALA has championed library service and librarianship. The ALA’s mission is “to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”

Books Banned as Harmful to Minors

The ALA tracks the numerous books challenged for removal because of content or inappropriate information, such as sexual identity, seen as harmful to minors. Several banned books are cited because of racial themes, especially gender identity and sexual orientation.

Dissenting political viewpoints is another common response to banning a book. The reason may be the worry that kids will be taught political views based on an author’s opinion. We are familiar with this debate for school textbooks, which is challenged depending on the slant of the academic writing it.

Banned Book as ‘Critical Information?’

Concerned thatreaders (particularly young readers) are losing access to “critical information,” the ALA, the American Federation of Teachers, more than a dozen organizations (unnamed in this news article), the Authors Guild, and a handful of publishers created a coalition. Unite Against Book Bans was formed to fight the nationwide wave of book bans and challenges, stating that “reading is a foundational skill, critical to future learning and to exercise our democratic freedoms.”

While researching this article, it was interesting to discover that in 2018, it was the ALA that voted to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a major children’s book award. Yes, Half Pint’s name was removed over concerns with how this early to mid-century author portrayed blacks and Native Americans. The reason? The author’s books include “expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values.” (ALSC is a division of the ALA)

Should authors’ work from long ago be banned because of cultural language and biased opinions that have been acknowledged and corrected today? What about the democratic freedoms of their day? Should those authors be punished today?

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Should Certain Books Be Banned from Schools?

There is strong support from parents who want a say in what is on the shelves of their school libraries.Additionally is a concern that if parents don’t want their children to read certain books in their school library, they shouldn’t restrict other families who want their children to read them.

Who decides?

A banned book from many school libraries is To Kill a Mockingbird. After reading it with my high school son for our homeschool book club, this classic has become one of my favorites. This book wasn’t required reading in my high school, but knowing the content, I felt it was essential reading for my son. As a homeschool group, we read this book to explore and discuss the topics of racism, the justice system, and the southern culture.

What About the First Amendment?

The First Amendment’s right to free speech is referred to when it comes to authors exercising their democratic freedoms. (Just look at the internet and the thousands of blogs and articles that are more opinion than fact.) Today, authors are published from every culture, color, religion, sex, and political viewpoint. 

The guarantee of freedom of speech means that Americans have the right to express themselves without government interference. The government cannot censor, stop, or punish people from speaking their minds. Speech that provokes actions that harm others (mainly incitements or threats) or obscenity is not protected here. So do we consider vulgar language and sexual themes in books for youth as obscene or harmful actions?

An American author can express their views and opinions in a work of fiction or nonfiction. Another American has the right to critique that work, whether positive or negative. Yet, because everyone has their own morals and ethics, a general decision on what is “obscene” is problematic.

It was in 1982 that the Supreme Court set the standard for banning books in schools. In the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, the school board tried to ban several books that, in their opinion, were inappropriate for students. In the Supreme Court’s “plurality” opinion, school officials could not remove books from the school library simply because they dislike the ideas in the book. Still, they can remove a book if it is inappropriate for the children of the school.

Again, who decides what is “inappropriate?”

Would you allow your child to read these banned books?

On banned book lists are titles widely acclaimed and even voted the best by Americans for the PBS Great American Reads list. (To Kill a Mockingbird is at #1.)

Scholastic posted a list of children’s and YA books that are banned because of certain content
. It may surprise many to see A Wrinkle in Time, Where the Wild Things Are, andAlice and Wonderland on the list for promoting the occult, or The Outsiders and My Brother Sam is Dead for violence. These titles were never questioned when I was in school in the 70s and 80s but were a part of childhood reading.

One popular banned book is the young adult fiction book The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas, where the protagonist witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer. This title is a Goodreads Choice Award Winner (voted by readers), with hundreds of accolades, yet banned because of profanity and promoting an anti-police message. Published after the 2013 death of Trevon Martin but before George Floyd’s death in 2020, this book is undoubtedly still relevant to many.

Regardless of how some feel about banned books, they are available for purchase. Publishers will sell the books that make money, irrespective of content or the authors’ beliefs and opinions.

Just as with anything else, the public will vote with their wallets. We purchase the books, download eBooks, and ask the library for titles we want to read. Parents buy books for their children and teens.

Do Americans Support Book Bans?

Data shows that of the current 1586 banned books from schools, only 4% were initiated by parents or community members filing formal challenges, according to PEN America. A vast majority have been decisions by school administrators or board members, often following comments from the community in public meetings.

According to
Unite Against Book Bans, 71% of voters oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries, and 67% oppose efforts to remove books from school libraries. (This poll was conducted by Hart Research Association and the North Star Opinion Research on behalf of the ALA. They surveyed 1000 voters and 472 parents of children in public schools. The survey was conducted in early March 2022.)

Among those opposed to banning books, 75% are Democrats, 58% Independents, and 70% Republicans.
Most voters and parents highly regard librarians and have confidence in their local libraries. They believe good decisions are being made on books added to the circulation and agree “that libraries in their communities do a good job offering books that represent a variety of viewpoints.”

While many adults are opposed to banning books in schools, they are the ones with purchasing power, influencing what is being published in the Young Adult genre. The majority of YA book purchases are actually made by adults, and most of those adults read the book themselves. A large audience of adults prefers YA fiction over adult fiction. 57% of adult readers reported reading more YA than adult literature because the content is interesting and fun to read, and the plots are more fast-paced.

Do Parents Have a Right to Have Influence in Their School District?

From the research, most Americans are against school book bans or find them unnecessary. However, there is more of a divide when it comes to agreeing on what is or is not appropriate for children and teens. Parents want an influence in their child’s school, and a right to speak out against any book they feel is unsuitable for children.  

Parents significantly impact what their young children and teens read at home. While parents cannot necessarily keep their kids from exposure to certain books at school, they can and should open conversations about what their kids are reading while providing guidance toward the best choices.  

There will always be a divide regarding what books have “critical information” and which are appropriate for kids. Yet, authors will continue to have freedom of expression in their writing. Therefore, parents should be free to voice their opinion on what is available in school libraries.