The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Standing up to the new censorship

An author whose own books have been banned argues that censors may be using an outdated playbook, but their aims are only growing more insidious

(Emiliano Ponzi for The Washington Post)
9 min

On the surface, it would appear that book censors and censored authors like myself can agree on one thing: Books are powerful. Particularly books for children and teens.

Why else would people like me spend so much time and energy writing them? Why else would censors spend so much time and energy trying to keep them out of kids’ hands?

In a country where the average adult is reading fewer and fewer books, it’s a surprise to find Americans arguing so much about them. In this election year, parents and politicians — so many politicians — are jumping into the fray to say how powerful books can be. Granted, politicians often make what I do sound like witchcraft, but I take this as a compliment.

I’ll admit, one of my first thoughts about the current wildfire of attempted censorship was: How quaint. Conservatives seemed to be dusting off their playbook from 1958, when the only way our stories could get to kids was through schools and libraries. While both are still crucial sanctuaries for readers, they’re hardly the only options. Plenty of booksellers supply titles that are taken off school shelves. And words can be very widely shared free of charge on social media and the rest of the internet. If you take my book off a shelf, you keep it away from that shelf, but you hardly keep it away from readers.

As censorship wars have raged in so many communities, damaging the lives of countless teachers, librarians, parents and children, it’s begun to feel less and less quaint. This is not your father’s book censorship.

We’re no longer talking about fear of “dirty words.” Early in my career, some adults expressed discomfort with the number of f-bombs in my books. I always explained that they were used for precision — saying “I’m really angry” is different from saying “I’m really f---ing angry.” Because I don’t particularly hold the use of f-bombs as a core part of my identity, I didn’t take such disputes personally. We were arguing over words.

I really miss arguing over words.

Because now, it’s very personal. The overwhelming majority of books being challenged today are by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and LGBTQ+ authors. Censors aren’t just going after the freedom to read; they’re trying to erase entire identities and histories. Censors claim they are protecting kids from ideology … by imposing their own ideology on whole classrooms and communities. Or at least attempting to.

Here’s something I never thought I’d be nostalgic for: sincere censors. When my first novel, “Boy Meets Boy,” was published in 2003, it was immediately the subject of many challenges, some of which kept the book from ever getting on a shelf in the first place. At the time, a challenge usually meant one parent trying to get a book pulled from a school or a library, going through a formal process. I often reminded myself to try to find some sympathy for these parents; yes, they were wrong, and their desire to control what other people in the community got to read was wrong — but more often than not, the challenge was coming from fear of a changing world, a genuine (if incorrect) belief that being gay would lead kids straight to ruination and hell, and/or the misbegotten notion that if all the books that challenged the (homophobic, racist) status quo went away, then the status quo would remain intact. It was, in some ways, as personal to them as it was to those of us on the other side of the challenge. And nine times out of 10, the book would remain on the shelf.

It’s not like that now. What I’ve come to believe, as I’ve talked to authors and librarians and teachers, is that attacks are less and less about the actual books. We’re being used as targets in a much larger proxy war. The goal of that war isn’t just to curtail intellectual freedom but to eviscerate the public education system in this country. Censors are scorching the earth, without care for how many kids get burned. Racism and homophobia are still very much present, but it’s also a power grab, a money grab. The goal for many is a for-profit, more authoritarian and much less diverse culture, one in which truth is whatever you’re told it is, your identity is determined by its acceptability and the past is a lie that the future is forced to emulate. The politicians who holler and post and draw up their lists of “harmful” books aren’t actually scared of our books. They are using our books to scare people.

There’s a reason this tactic has a chance of working, and why you don’t see people using the reading choices of adults as an argument to ban books. No one particularly cares what adults read, because the power of reading isn’t as widespread among adults (sadly).

The power of reading is, however, widespread among children. So many of us know that, because even if we don’t read much in our adulthood, odds are good that we felt the magic of reading when we were young: Whether it was a cherished someone reading us to sleep, or navigating a fantasy world all on our own and then talking to our friends about it, we understood we were in the presence of something bigger than ourselves that also, somehow, lived inside us, too.

I laugh when someone attacks one of my books (or any other LGBTQ+ book for kids) because it will “turn the reader gay.” We’re powerful, but we’re not that powerful; our books’ power comes from providing affirmation, confirmation, inspiration and the space to think, not from creating something that isn’t already there. I have heard from readers who say my books and other LGBTQ+ books saved their lives, because the recognition they discovered and the validation they felt brought them back from the brink of despair. And I have heard from far more readers that our books help them live better, truer lives, by showing what is possible, by honoring the difficult parts and by giving them characters who are often navigating situations similar to the ones they face. Rarely does a reader write to me and say, “Your book has power,” but what they say is often synonymous with that. We are not the engines of change; the readers are the engines of change. We can sometimes provide them with the fuel they need, often when they need it most.

The censors want to cut off this supply. And once upon a time, it might have worked. But because of the internet and all the support networks that queer and BIPOC and other targeted youth have set up in recent decades, it can’t work now.

The censors’ playbook might be out of date, but that doesn’t make it any less insidious.

A couple of months ago, I spoke at the American Library Association’s annual convention, at an event celebrating intellectual freedom. It was a bleak day, and I will admit I used a few f-bombs. Roe v. Wade had been overturned that morning. I was wearing a shirt that read “I Will Say Gay,” to acknowledge the bizarre and despicable attack on queer youth going on in Florida. The librarians who won awards at the event talked about how politicians had turned some (not all) people in their communities against their libraries. Protesters picketed one talk that featured a drag queen. And one librarian told us how, after she posted a statement supporting diversity in her library, the local sheriff told her to not bother calling 911 if something went wrong.

There didn’t seem to be an easy answer to any of this. But still we asked each other: What’s giving you hope?

We all had the same answer, and it’s not the power of books. It’s the next generation of readers, the very kids and teens whom censors are trying to control in the name of “protection.” The threat to intellectual freedom never comes from kids. No educator or librarian I have spoken to can recall a kid asking for a book to be banned from a classroom or a library. (There are plenty of kids who say a book sucks and shouldn’t be taught; I know, because I was definitely one of those kids.) If a kid comes across something in a book that scares them or confuses them or makes them uncomfortable, they might stop reading, but they won’t insist that everyone else should be prevented from reading it, too.

As I said to the librarians in June, the censors want us to believe that lions are at the gates. But the truth is that we who value and defend books are the ones who protect the gates. They want us to close and lock those gates, to be in a state of perpetual defense. But we’re here to keep the gates wide open, to anyone and everyone, particularly the children of color and LGBTQ+ kids who have been kept away so many times before.

We who value and defend books don’t do it because we love books and have better lives because of them, though both those things are usually true. We defend books because by doing so, we defend all the kids who are represented in those books. Censorship is the antithesis of truth-telling, and even though it is exhausting work, we must continue to tell the truth — not only about the books, but about the censors and what they are really after.

David Levithan is, according to PEN America, the 11th-most-censored author in the United States. His most recent book is “Answers in the Pages.”

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.