Novel-tea: what today's book bans say about America
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In the 2021-2022 school year, book bannings took on new life with “2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles” from July 2021 to June 2022, according to PEN America. Among the titles listed on PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans, 41 percent directly speak to LGBTQ+ themes and characters, 40 percent have protagonists or prominent characters of color, 21 percent confront issues of race and racism, 22 percent have sexual content (which range from abortion, sexual assault, and pregnancy to informational stories about puberty, sex, and relationships), 10 percent address rights and activism, nine percent are types of biographies or memoirs, and four percent focus on religious minorities. 49 percent are young adult books which include these topics.
This strikingly speaks to what America’s values and fears are. Beginning with the first book banned in America which was likely Thomas Morton’s 1637 “New English Canaan” which scathingly attacked Puritan customs in light of Morton’s exile from the Puritan colony, book bannings reflect the beliefs of the societies in which they are challenged. 17th century Puritan colonies were consumed by self-image and religious piety, thus writing which demeans those values was treated seriously.
Today, the majority of books banned are young adult books, which makes sense as those who enforce book bans often claim they are for the good of America’s young. While this statement is a fallacy, it also reflects America’s fears. Professor Trisha Tucker writes, “Book bans gain traction in cultures that imagine themselves as upholding a barrier between the purity of children and the corruption of the world.” In America, there is a culture of simultaneously trying to protect children’s purity, yet also exposing them to the dangers of the world quite early on. In 2022 alone, there have been 32 school shootings which resulted in injury or death with 26 students and/or children being murdered. How can those who claim to want to protect America’s children and their education, also be willing to see them repeatedly murdered and traumatized?
This hypocrisy speaks more to America than anything. The values being perpetuated here are not protecting children, but rather protecting youth complacency. In recent years, youth voices have been some of the loudest in calling out the most dire issues of our society. A big part of this young impetus is expanded access to information that has come with modern innovations in technology, media, and literature. Book banning is not an attempt to protect youth innocence — if that was the case then there would be more efforts to improve public school resources, teacher quality of life, and prevent going to school from being a life-threatening activity — rather it comes out of fear for the power of developing young critical thinkers (which is really all banning books prevents).
Furthermore, book bans close-off public knowledge and understanding of America, of all the controversies that exist here and affect everyone — especially America’s youth. As an article from The Atlantic explains, “Keeping books about certain types of children out of libraries perpetuates a vision of a sheltered American childhood that has rarely existed.”