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Literary Controversy: The Age of Banned Books

Melanie Howard

      Most who reflect on their middle and high school years may recall some of the many books considered required reading. Some may remember reading them while others may remember neglecting to do so and subsequently scouring the internet for Sparknotes instead. Regardless of what kind of reader you were, or still are, titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye may come to mind, while more avid readers in recent years may have chosen to pick up a copy of The Hate U Give or Dear Martin on their own time. For some, reading brings back childhood memories of Harry Potter or maybe even James and the Giant Peach. Each of these books tells a unique story featuring different lessons that both children and adults alike have absorbed and held on to throughout their lives. While these books are all so diverse in their content, they all share one common trait; they are banned. Many schools are currently fighting either for or against banning popular books. These are often pieces of literature that discuss supposed “controversial” topics, as stated by Bryce Wyles in The Cavalier Daily. Wyles claims these to include  “the presence of sex, drugs, violence, confrontation with racial issues, religious violations and blasphemy” (Wyles). Wyles opposes the banning of books and strongly believes that by doing so society is limiting access to information every person has a right to. Every fall there is an event known as “Banned Book Week” that takes place, celebrating the exact books that many deem inappropriate. Many libraries and bookstores put on a week-long showcase to display and advertise these books as their own way to combat censorship in today’s society. 

     There is a sense of irony that today in American society books are being banned; a form of censorship, where the majority of Americans actively believe in freedoms that include equal access to information. Maria Cahill, an English teacher at Sandwich High School, advocates against the banning of books when she stated in an interview that she believes, “students, and people in general, should be able to read what they want to read and have open access to information.” She adds, “When children grow up, the world is not censored. They will be exposed to these topics that people are trying to censor by banning books” (Cahill). Censorship breeds ignorance to real-world issues and cultivates generations of continual systemic injustice. For example, banning books about race demonstrates willful neglect toward the struggles and oppression an entire segment of the population faces. 

     Books that touch upon the topic of race and racism tend to be at the center of controversy and are some of the most often banned books in school settings. Books written by people of color are particularly targeted for bans. These are commonly authors who are sharing their experiences, whether that may be through characters, a memoir, or autobiography. Recently, there has been some discontent from parents regarding books that include the n-word. Works of literature like Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, offer the perspective of a young black boy at the center of an incident with police brutality. While many believe that the n-word should not be present in books available to young people, there is a vast amount of literature required at the high school level that also uses the n-word. Some include To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--the list goes on. The difference? The classics that most are accustomed to reading are not using the n-word to educate others about injustice but rather because that was considered appropriate language. In Texas, there was recently a hot debate about banning a large list of books, especially “books that promote anti-racism and can be connected with Critical Race Theory (CRT) or the New York Times’ 1619 Project” (Lopez). The 1619 project, started by Nikole Hannah-Jones, pushes the idea that the date August 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colonies, is the true date that signifies the nation’s conception. It is a long-form journalism project with essays from several people on racism and oppression that has all stemmed from that fateful day in 1619. It is one of the largest projects from the New York Times to date. Critical Race Theory is a teaching concept that has been around for 40 years. It teaches that race is a social construct and that racism is alive because it is embedded in systems and policies everywhere. It allows young people and adults alike to think critically about race. How can it be that books that advocate for racism and anti-racism alike are being banned? Unfortunately, many people, and adults especially, fear having difficult conversations that face the undeniable truth that we live in a racist society. Together as a whole, we must shed this fear if we wish for our future generations to maintain an equal society. White-washing curriculums and the books that young people have access to is not fixing racism, it is deepening it. Anti-racist books should not just be not banned, but be integrated into school curriculums, and while the classics that use the n-word were not written to teach anti-racism, that does not mean that cannot be changed. 

     Rather than choosing to get rid of or ignore books that bring forth difficult topics, we need to redefine and restructure how we teach difficult subjects with these books. Maria Cahill spoke passionately on this and said, “You can learn lessons from books that are banned, and you can critique the books to see what they have done poorly. Banned books lead to powerful conversations,” adding that, “introducing topics with experts in specific fields, creating a supportive environment, establishing relationships with students, and being vulnerable as a teacher are all essential to having open and honest conversations” (Cahill). Difficult conversations can cause discomfort for everyone involved, but it is a necessary discomfort, the state of discomfort that can lead to growth and change in the world. If adults and educators alike choose to be vulnerable and honest with young people, then the youth of the world will grow into more empathetic and educated people.  Furthermore, when adults teach children to think critically, ignorance can be stomped out. In the current state of the world, we cannot afford ignorance or dishonesty. Not with the murder of innocent black people, or the rights of women being stripped away. Not with the hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people, or the antisemitic actions against the Jewish populations. We cannot afford ignorance in this age of violence and hate. Perhaps we should fear books and the power they hold, after all. They can not only change outlooks but change lives.


Works Cited

Cahill, Maria. Personal interview. 9 November 2021. 

Caneva, Gina. “Fighting the good fight as a school librarian during banned books week.” https://chicago.suntimes.com/2021/9/30/22702637/banned-book-week-school-librarian-gina-caneva. Accessed 10 November 2021.

Lopez, Brian. “Texas house committee to investigate school districts’ books on race and sexuality.” https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/26/texas-school-books-race-sexuality/. Accessed 11 November 2021.  

Sawchuck, Stephen. “What is Critical Race Theory, and Why is it Under Attack?” https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-is-critical-race-theory-and-why-is-it-under-attack/2021/05. Accessed 21 November 2021.

Silverstein, Jake. “On Recent Criticism of the 1619 Project.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/16/magazine/criticism-1619-project.html. Accessed 21 November 2021.

Wyles, Bryce. “WYLES: Celebrate Banned Books.” https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2021/10/wyles-celebrate-banned-books. Accessed 10 November 2021.