Opinion: Let’s fight to put books where they belong, in hands of students

MoveOn Political Action's Banned Bookmobile distributed free banned books at the kickoff of National Banned Book Week in Decatur, where Kimora Bernard (from left), 12, her sister, Kimiyah, 5, and grandmother Carmen Bernard (right) of Stone Mountain pick out a few of the banned books that cannot be checked out at some public school libraries on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, at Little Shop of Stories in the Decatur Square. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

MoveOn Political Action's Banned Bookmobile distributed free banned books at the kickoff of National Banned Book Week in Decatur, where Kimora Bernard (from left), 12, her sister, Kimiyah, 5, and grandmother Carmen Bernard (right) of Stone Mountain pick out a few of the banned books that cannot be checked out at some public school libraries on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, at Little Shop of Stories in the Decatur Square. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

In a guest column, three education advocates share their growing concern over censorship campaigns that target books about and by people of color and those with LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

Middle school teacher Becky Pringle is president of the National Education Association. Caroline Tung Richmond is executive director of We Need Diverse Books and an award-winning author of young adult historical fiction including “The Only Thing to Fear,” “Live In Infamy” and “The Great Destroyers.Ellen Oh is a founding member, president and CEO of We Need Diverse Books. She is the author of several middle school and young adult books, including the “Prophecy” trilogy, as well as “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” and “You Are Here: Connecting Flights.”

By Becky Pringle, Caroline Tung Richmond and Ellen Oh

Books that once lined the shelves of the library in a Jacksonville, Florida, elementary school are now stored in boxes. The school librarian spends her days vetting titles to comply with new censorship laws passed by the state.

In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, educators spent up to 40 hours a week reviewing titles after a mother of two students single-handedly challenged over 70 books in her school district. In one Utah district, 199 of 205 challenges were tracked to one married couple. A review of those titles took 10,000 hours of staff time at a cost that exceeded $100,000. None of the educators will receive compensation for the extra work.

In Niles, Michigan, the school board recently blocked the circulation of nearly 200 diverse children’s titles that the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books donated. The donation included an illustrated version of the beloved Langston Hughes poem “I, Too, Am America,” with art by Bryan Collier, and the picture book “Grandma’s Purse” by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, about a young Black girl who playfully looks through her grandmother’s handbag. Although district teachers selected the texts, the school board — most of whom received backing from the conservative We the Parents political organization — refuses to release the books to school libraries.

These stories are not unique. Nationwide, educators continue to face an unprecedented number of book challenges — a figure that was 33% higher last school year than the year before.

While there is no doubt that Florida and Texas lead the country when it comes to banning books, the epidemic isn’t isolated to traditionally red states. In the midst of a climate that is hostile to books that contain diverse characters and storylines that don’t match some people’s view of the world, educators nationwide are overwhelmed and afraid. They are self-censoring their classroom bookshelves, and forgoing lessons focused on Pride Month or Black History Month. Some educators fear for their safety and livelihoods. In fact, 1 out of 4 school librarians have reported being harassed about books or displays in their library.

Extremist politicians and pundits stoke this fear mongering under the guise of “parental rights” while cultivating ties with far-right organizations, like those who attacked our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021. Despite clear proof from some polling that 75% of Americans oppose book bans, which voters heartily indicated by standing with pro-public education candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, the use of book bans to whitewash our nation’s history —– to mount.

Precious district resources continue to go to waste, along with taxpayer money. And our students are robbed of material that encourages them to develop critical thinking skills by learning to understand the world that surrounds them.

We know the intended target of these bans. According to PEN America, 30% of banned titles feature LGBTQ+ characters or themes, while 30% feature BIPOC characters or contain themes related to race. Further, the top four most-challenged books in 2022 were all written by diverse authors and featured diverse protagonists. Make no mistake, this is a concerted effort to erase diverse books from public schools and suppress marginalized voices.

At NEA and We Need Diverse Books, we recognize the power of a diverse bookshelf. The simple act of reading allows students to gaze into mirrors and see themselves, and through windows that allow them to see others.

A Washington and Lee University study offers proof. After participants read a 3,000-word excerpt of the novel “Saffron Dreams” by Pakistani American author Shaila Abdullah, their bias toward the Muslim community decreased. The study offers what educators already know to be true: When students have access to diverse books, they collectively read at least four more hours a week.

When access to these titles is lost, our students also lose the opportunity to build empathy toward others who might not look, or live, like them. Every student deserves to see themselves in the books they read. It is how they learn that their stories and their lives matter.

This nation’s founding documents contain one powerful phrase: “We the people.” That means all of us, across race, place, gender and religion. All educators deserve the freedom to teach. All students deserve the freedom to learn this nation’s history in its entirety so they can fully participate in creating its bright future.

We must defend these rights for every student. We must make our voices heard at school board meetings, and support educators who demand honesty in education. And we must run for school board positions ourselves. In 2022, extreme right organizations endorsed and funded over 500 candidates for local school boards. While that number is small compared to the 71% of pro-public education candidates who won over culture war candidates, unless we rise up to challenge them, these new members will continue the practice of whitewashing our history by taking books from our students, as they march toward their ultimate goal: the destruction of our democracy.

To fight these book bans, we must continue to, in a multiracial coalition, promote, protect, and strengthen public education. No matter how long it takes, we must continue to fight to put books where they belong: in the hands of our students.

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