The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Book bans are on the rise. But librarians and authors are fighting back.

Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus" being read in Los Angeles, on Jan. 27. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The idea of banning books conjures images of piles of hardcovers in the street going up in flames. But over the past few decades in the United States, book banning has taken on a decidedly more genteel character. It has taken place in deliberative school board meetings and in quick after-school chats between librarians and concerned parents.

And incidents of this quieter version of book banning have recently spiked: A group of Texas school districts reported 75 attempts in the first four months of the 2021-2022 school year to censor children’s access to books. The number of attempts over the same period last year? Just one.

Many advocates for these bans claim they simply want to protect children from “vulgar, explicit material.” But no matter how well-intentioned, our best literary experts — librarians and authors themselves — have a clear message: This most recent wave of book banning is no less dangerous than book banning has been throughout history.

When Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust fable “Maus” was banned in a Tennessee school district last month, he readily conceded: “This is disturbing imagery. But you know what? It’s disturbing history.” It’s a profoundly uncomfortable subject to learn about, and that’s the point.

It might be tempting to soften the horrors of historical atrocities in the name of making them more easily digestible for children — what historical fiction author Gwen Katz calls “pajamafication” — but that hinders our ability to understand and learn from our history. As Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and Vietnamese American refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen recently told me, “We have to try to make our nation confront what it doesn’t want to remember.”

Books help us process difficult things in the past and the present. As author Carmen Maria Machado — whose award-winning memoir about a queer, abusive relationship met protests from Texas parents — tells us, “Preventing children from reading my book, or any book, won’t protect them. On the contrary, it may rob them of ways to understand the world they’ll encounter, or even the lives they’re already living.” Machado wrote the book because she couldn’t find any existing art resembling her experience. Denying young people access to works like hers only leaves those gaps unfilled.

Of course, some ideas in banned books aren’t just difficult; they’re downright dangerous or hateful. But in response to those concerns, the American Library Association cites philosopher John Stuart Mill: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing … those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.” As Mill argues, the “collision” of ideas can make us wiser, but that requires people reading and engaging with ideas in the first place. W.E.B. Du Bois also saw the value in facing abhorrent historical truths directly, observing: “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this?”

Research bears out the value of letting students interrogate these sorts of ideas. One study of middle school classes found that students who got to debate controversial subjects were more likely to see themselves as “an active participant in civic affairs” instead of sitting on the sidelines. And keeping children engaged with important topics through reading is no small feat in our current educational and media environment. Americans are reading fewer books than they have in decades, and the pandemic has done no favors for children’s reading fluency. So why try to stop them if they’re compelled to read a difficult story?

In a beautiful recent essay on dangerous books, Nguyen argues that “to compete with video games, streaming video and social media, books must be thrilling, addictive, thorny and dangerous. If those qualities sometimes get books banned, it’s worth noting that sometimes banning a book can increase its sales.” That certainly happened with “Maus.” If anything, the Tennessee district’s ban has given Spiegelman a platform to participate in crucial public conversations about his work — including a webinar hosted by several Tennessee community organizations on Monday.

In short: These books will be read regardless of any censorship efforts. But by allowing them in the classroom, teachers can present them with the context and guidance they demand.

Fortunately, as these attacks on books intensify, librarians and authors are fighting back. In Texas, a group of librarians started a social media campaign to promote students’ access to a diverse range of books. Meanwhile, the Authors Guild launched a national letter-writing campaign to persuade school boards and local representatives to resist this movement. And PEN America, an advocacy group for free expression composed of thousands of writing professionals, has chronicled recent efforts to censor education and offered several actions authors can take when their work is threatened.

We should support these efforts from the people who understand literature best. And we should keep reading thought-provoking (and even fear-provoking) books. If you’re looking for a place to start, during our conversation last year, Nguyen shared his recommended reading list. As he wrote in his essay, “books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question.”