The Battle Over Books
From my very first day of high school, I was introduced to a wide range of authors, books and ideas. While studying literature, my English class also became a place for personal growth and self-reflection. I found new ways to express my creativity through writing and began to more deeply understand a variety of human experiences different from my own.
Looking back on books I’ve read, I notice that many of them are facing censorship. For instance, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and many others have been removed from libraries and schools across the country. Many of these books are specifically targeted because they discuss race, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Unfortunately, book bans are nothing new. But lately, it feels like they’re occurring all around us. There is a lot at stake and teens and educators have many things to say about it.
A Surge in Book Bans
Efforts to ban books in the U.S. have sharply increased in the last few years. More than 1,200 books were challenged in 2022 alone, according to the American Library Association. In several states, lawmakers are even creating bills to restrict books and limit classroom discussions regarding gender, sexual orientation and race. “It’s abhorrent,” says Ré, 19, of Chicago. “Book banning historically has only ever had negative implications.”
This surge in book bans has had several consequences. It’s made it harder for teens to access important stories. Teachers are being targeted for their curricula. And there has been an increase in harassment and legal threats toward librarians.
Teens Need Diverse Representation
For many teens, reading can be a way for them to navigate their own experiences. It’s vital for them to see their identities reflected in books.
“Book bans are disheartening,” says Elliot, 17, of Houston. “It’s a clear effort to erase certain people from our culture.” By removing books that represent people of various backgrounds, many identities (like being BIPOC or LGBTQ+) will be underrepresented (or not included at all). Teens may feel as if their voices do not matter. “Representation is everything,” says Faith, 16, of Pearl City, HI. “It gives us a space to feel seen and not so alone in a world that often feels against us.”
Plenty of teens are aware that they can learn about other perspectives through reading: “A wider view of the world can open up that can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of it,” says Roman, 17, of Newnan, GA. They may be exposed to people with very different histories. “It could give me a look into other ethnicities and cultures and I think that’s valuable,” says Quentin, 18, of Springfield, MO.
Banning books, on the other hand, does the opposite. Trying to block exposure to these stories can lead to “less empathy for those that aren’t like you and a decreased understanding of the world around us,” says Sophia, 17, of Austin, TX.
If we continue to reject books that include certain identities, teens with those identities can feel as if they are being rejected, too. “Restricting books just limits experiences and encourages hate,” says Devon, 17, of Madison County, VA. We must keep representative books in our education system so that teens feel safe and seen.
We must keep representative books in our education system so that teens feel safe and seen.
Educators Are Frustrated
When books are banned, teachers and librarians face backlash. To gain more insight, I interviewed one of my English teachers, Mr. Peter Honig, and my high school’s librarian, Ms. Lisa Manganello.
Teachers are trained to decide whether certain books are a good fit for their students. “These are decisions that we should trust our educators to make,” says Mr. Honig. However, many teachers across the country are no longer allowed to make these choices. Instead, the content they teach is being restricted to a narrow range of perspectives. “When the targeted books give voice to marginalized groups, it becomes obvious that the censorship is happening to impose a specific, conservative viewpoint on our education system,” says Mr. Honig.
Excluding other perspectives could lead to more discrimination. “It prevents non-marginalized students from understanding experiences other than their own, and marginalized students from seeing their experiences represented in the materials that we use to teach them,” says Mr. Honig. To help teens feel less isolated and encourage inclusivity, teachers must have the autonomy to choose what is right for their students.
Similarly, librarians need to have the freedom to select books for their collections. “We all bring our lived experiences to the library and since those experiences are varied, the books that we see in the library should be too,” says Ms. Manganello. She ensures that her collection is as “rich, interesting and varied as the students that it serves.” She also makes sure that her library contains “high quality” materials to combat misinformation. “Questionable materials are readily available on phones, tablets and laptops our students carry, but books that have been selected by a trained librarian are critical to combating misinformation,” says Ms. Manganello. “Teens are still trying to figure out who they are, what they stand for and what they hope to do in the future,” she says. “What better way to try on new identities, learn about the world and learn about yourself than inside the pages of a challenging book?”
Your Story Matters
Teens deserve to feel seen and valued. They need to have access to an education that validates their identities while also allowing them to understand experiences that are different from their own. “Seeing queer, neurodivergent people like me in books made me excited because I finally saw myself reflected in other people,” says Nico, 19, of Jacksonville, FL. “Even if they weren’t real, the fact that someone could think of someone like me and consider them to be cool and likable was amazing.”
“I want to be able to uplift voices,” continues Nico. “I can only do this if I have the knowledge and that’s what books are for, right?”