The right to read sounds simple enough. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States protects that right. But unfortunately, the hundreds of challenged and banned books each year tell a different story. More than 273 books were challenged or banned in 2020, according to the American Library Association (ALA), and campaigns to ban books from schools are on the rise.
From children’s books to The Bible, 11,300 books have been challenged and banned since 1982. Some are challenged and banned year after year. For example, the ALA’s Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books: 2010-2019 list includes well-known classics such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.
How Does Banning Books Harm Students?
Individuals who challenge books they find objectionable, or contrary to their belief systems, may have the power to restrict that material for thousands more. The following are four reasons banning books is not effective or helpful to young readers:
1. Libraries Are a Place for All People
By definition, a public library is a place for the people. As the Library Bill of Rights states, “books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.” Restricting or removing access to books goes against the very nature of libraries.
In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, students challenged the school board’s removal of books described as “objectionable.” Justice Brennan upheld students’ First Amendment rights, concluding, “a school library, no less than any other public library, is a place dedicated ‘to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty’ … We hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”
2. Diversity in Books Matters
ALA’s lists of challenged books reflect efforts to remove LGBTQ stories and voices from people of color. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, is the award-winning true story of two male penguins and the chick they raise together. This best-seller is frequently challenged and banned for being “anti-family.”
Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid is about seventh-grader Jordan Banks, an African American boy attending a mainly white school. It is also the first graphic novel to win the prestigious Newbery Medal. However, districts removed New Kid from libraries because of claims that it promoted “critical race theory.” It has since returned to the shelves.
The “diversity gap” is a well-known problem in children’s literature. Banning multicultural books from libraries, or placing them in restricted areas, sends the harmful message that children from diverse backgrounds do not belong. Additionally, banning books about topics like LGBTQ and racial experiences does not prevent students from experiencing those lived experiences in their lives. Reading about them helps them process.
3. Books Help Readers Make Sense of the Real World
Reading books with relatable themes can give young people insight into their own lives, going back to Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. The reasons for challenging and banning the book are the very reasons it resonates so strongly with its audience — teens who are navigating the significant struggles of puberty themselves.
The same is true for dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, frequently challenged for being “unsuited to age group.” Dystopian literature’s dark plots may not reflect reality. But like The Hunger Games‘ teen protagonist Katniss Everdeen, the characters in these books can give young adults a sense of empowerment at a pivotal time in their lives.
4. Reading Banned Books May Boost Civic Engagement
Schools typically prioritize literacy, math and science over civics. But the importance of civics goes far beyond voting. The National Education Association notes that civics can promote a positive school climate and reduce dropout rates. Reading books with difficult or taboo topics can help with this.
Writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nedra Rhone reported on a study that found reading banned books correlated positively to increased civic behaviors. Kids who read commonly banned books were more interested in politics and involved in charitable causes. The study also found a positive relationship between time spent reading for pleasure and GPA.
The fight to ban books typically occurs at the local level, putting pressure on teachers and media specialists who make critical decisions about reading lists and resources. Teacher Leader Endorsement programs can help educators build on the necessary competencies to lead their school communities in protecting students’ right to read.