“Fahrenheit 451″ is fiction, but America’s dangerous dalliance with censorship reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s novel is becoming increasingly precarious.
The Chicago-based American Library Association reports that attempts to ban books across the country nearly doubled in 2022 compared with the previous year. The association logged at least 1,200 book challenges last year. In 2021, the group reported 729 challenges. Illinois saw 67 attempts to ban books in 2022, a jump from 41 the previous year.
Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who also serves as the state’s chief librarian, recently decided to take a stand against this disturbing trend. He’s behind legislation that punishes book banning by cutting off state grant funds to public libraries and libraries at schools that ban books for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons — or, put another way, succumbing to bullying.
Illinois would become the first state to enact such a measure. The bill has passed both the House and Senate and now awaits the signature of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who already has expressed support.
Giannoulias’ bill is the right measure at the right time.
The movement to ban books at libraries and schools reflects a larger, insidious agenda fashioned by the same far-right elements that turned schools into cultural cage-matches for everything from mask mandates to critical race theory.
LGBTQ-themed books on school library shelves have drawn some of the ugliest vitriol from conservatives. In 2021, Community High School District 99 in west suburban Downers Grove became Illinois’ ground zero for book banning controversies. Far-right-wingers, including members of the Proud Boys, tried to wrest off of school library shelves “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, winner of the ALA’s Alex Award, which annually recognizes books for adults that have special appeal to youths ages 12 to 18.
Opponents of the book called it porn. In reality, “Gender Queer” explores the adolescence-to-adulthood journey and coming out of a nonbinary individual. Ultimately, the district resisted the backlash against the book and chose to keep it on the shelf.
The absurdity of the book ban movement is made clear by the ALA’s most frequently challenged books, which include Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Last month, Texas state Rep. Jared Patterson, a conservative Republican, proposed a new batch of restrictions on what books school districts could put on library shelves — and cited Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” as a book that may have to be banned. That’s “Lonesome Dove,” winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The assault on books is a byproduct of the push to force partisan politics onto what up until now has been the nonpartisan nature of school districts, public libraries and municipalities.
Earlier this year, the Tribune reported on concerted efforts by right-wing groups to inject partisanship into Chicago-area local elections. The effort wasn’t just about slating right-wing candidates on local ballots; thousands of dollars from conservative groups poured into those candidates’ campaigns. For the most part, those candidates lost. But the die is cast, both in the Chicago region and nationally.
Parents have every right to scrutinize what their children read and there are certainly books unsuitable for young children, who do not need to be drawn into adult battles over sexuality. But we trust that the vast majority of librarians and teachers understand what is and is not age appropriate. And parental input does not extend to authority over what other parents’ children read.
A particularly egregious episode occurred earlier this year at a Pinellas County, Florida, high school district, where one parent’s complaint about Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” prompted the district’s superintendent to pull the book off the shelf without touching base with students, other parents, teachers or experts.
The book was banned for months, but returned to the shelves after students fought for its restoration. That this happened in Florida isn’t in the least surprising.But the viewpoint of one parent shouldn’t be the fulcrum for decisions on what a school district’s students read and learn.
We do not see the surge in attempted book bans abating anytime soon. That’s not only unfortunate, it’s perilous. A robust, challenging collection of books on library shelves enriches and opens minds. Book bans fuel narrow-mindedness, which is antithetical to what’s needed today in a bitterly divided America.
Giannoulias’ bill is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, however, librarians and school district administrators must stand their ground against any blinkering of the intellectual growth and energy of children across the country.
Books enlighten, inspire, and more often than not, open new doors. Book bans have only one outcome for young minds — harm.
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May 15, 2023 at 07:04AM