Tuesday, May 3, 2022

I'm Not Agitated About Book Bans

First, as angry as we may get, it's not humanly possible to ban a book, really. We keep using the term "ban" as a kind of shorthand for attempts to shoo certain books away from places where they might be encountered by young humans (the same humans who carry pocket computers with internet access to Two Girls One Cup and stills from the Human Centipede--and no, I am not linking to either).

These attempts are doomed. For one thing, a ban on a book has, since the days Mark Twain thanked the Concord Library for banning Huck Finn, a superlative level of marketing that cannot be bought. Try to find a copy of Maus right now. Hell, try to find a non-backordered copy of Everywhere Babies. In my little corner of the world, our local theater was hosting a production of La Cage Aux Folles, and local conservative church people spread the word that this Awful Thing was happening, so of course the show sold out. A few years later I was directing a production of Best Little Whorehouse; having learned their lesson, they again tried to spread word through local churches and didn't send letters to the editor of the newspaper, but the newspaper got ahold of the letter they were circulating and ran a front page story. Do you know how often we get front page coverage of a current community theater production, huge and free of charge? That one time. Priceless. If only conservatives would protest every show we put on.

Second, as a classroom teacher I could play whack-a-mole all day. There's always another book that can take the place of the one you just removed. It's irritating and sometimes costly, but oh well. 

Mind you, as a classroom teacher I'd rather not. I taught more than a few edgy texts in my career, and while I've laid out my approach elsewhere, the key pieces are building trust, providing plenty of context, and respecting the preferences of students and parents who would rather not deal with such texts. If, as a teacher, you clumsily slap your students in the brain with a text that includes items that may shock or alarm, you've earned any serious scoldings you get. 

All of that may only go so far in an age in which people seriously want to yank Everywhere Babies and a book with sexy seahorse pictures. But there are plenty of books. Take one away, and after explaining that "This book right here is one the authorities say you shouldn't be allowed to read" to the students, we can find other books instead.

There are aspects of this banning business that I do get agitated about. 

For instance, weaselly administrators.

Virtually all school districts have, as they should, a procedure by which concerned parents can challenge a particular text. That's important, as is school transparency about what texts are being used. 

But what we're seeing over and over again, in the vast majority of this wave of attacks on texts, is administrators circumventing that entire process. Administrators who just quietly go and pull books from the library, or, as one administrator at my old district did, just announce to teachers "You aren't using that book any more." Or yanking a book because of one phone call. Or fear about a phone call that might come.

All of this points to larger concerns than just the yanking of that text. Every teacher wants to know that administration has their back. Not that administration will back them even when they're wrong, but if administration will stand between them and the hundreds of differing forces converging on classrooms every day. Just like students in a classroom, teachers in a school want to know that there is some sort of order and fairness, and not just ever-shifting winds that change direction at the whims and moods of the person with power. Teachers want to know that they work for someone with convictions and courage to back them up. This kind of fearful reaction to book controversy is bad news for all of that.

Book ban attempts are also agitating as part of the larger landscape of Don't Trust Teachers, which is part of the larger landscape of Don't Trust Anyone Except Beloved Leader. The continued work of eroding trust in schools is bad for schools, bad for children, bad for society at large, but good for demagogues and political opportunists, who don't really care what books we're talking about as long as they can hammer home the message, "Those damned teachers are Up To Something and we'd better catch them and make them pay and pull down the building!"

Teachers work for the public, but pulling a book because of one phone call (or an feared future imaginary phone call) is not working for the public. It's inviting policy whiplash-- if you pull this book today because you got one phone call, will you put it back tomorrow because you get two phone calls going the other way? Should working for the public mean that one parent can decide for all parents what should be taught? Is the mission statement for the district "We will avoid doing anything that might make anyone uncomfortable ever"? Because that's a lousy mission statement for a school.

"But parents should be able to express their concerns about particular texts." Yes, yes they should. Absolutely. And that's why the district has a thought out procedure to do just that. Use it.

If people want to show up at school board meetings waving around lists of terrible books, that is certainly their right. As many folks have noted, calling for a book banning (or burning) is never a good or heroic look. And while I, as a parent, get the impulse to avoid exposing my children to certain images or ideas, trying to control what everyone else can see is different impulse entirely. As media intrusiveness has grown, we have tried harder and harder to raise children in bubbles, and it's not going well.

If you are trying to raise your children in a bunker so that you can retain complete control of what they know about the world outside, you are doomed to failure and will probably do some damage in the process. You certainly can't erase particular books from existence, nor can you identify every single book out there that might challenge your world view. 

There are two ways to deal with problematic, challenging, difficult stuff in the world. You can A) try to build a safe space where you'll never have to face the Scary Thing, or B) you can develop the strength and support to deal with the Scary Thing. Try to raise your children to be strong and capable and wise, and keep the lines of communication open so that they will ask your opinion and advice when they need it. That will be far more effective than fruitlessly trying to play whack-a-mole with books that contain Scary Words and Pictures. 


  1. Pretty much agree with you on all points. However, it is also true that in some school districts, the librarians have not exercised due diligence about the books they buy for K-5 students. YA literature with lurid plots and teen-oriented themes and language is not a good choice for the younger students.

  2. If you're aware of how it works, I'd love to know more about the school library book purchasing process. Are books ordered individually or bundled? Do they come recommended, or do librarians have to research all purchases completely on their own -- or, more interestingly, through websites that are essentially librarian social network sites?