Opinion The furor over ‘inappropriate’ books in schools is frightening. But there’s a thrilling subtext.

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)

Part of me is secretly pleased when I read about recent attempts to banish books.

You might have heard the stories. The Oklahoma legislature has just taken up a bill that declares schools must rid themselves of any book having to do with sex, under penalty of fines and firings. In Texas, the governor wants schools investigated for providing obscene materials to minors. South Carolina’s governor has asked the superintendent of education to remove “sexually explicit materials” from schools and also to explain how they came to be there.

It’s not just sex, though; it’s anything “inappropriate,” which usually means something that addresses gender, racism or sexuality, but also might mean something with mild profanity and a naked cartoon mouse.

At a school board meeting in McMinn County, Tenn., the offending book under discussion was “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir about the Holocaust. Instructional supervisor Melasawn Knight pointed out that the book’s “inappropriate” language was actually appropriate: “People did hang from trees, people did commit suicide and people were killed, over 6 million were murdered. I think the author is … trying to portray that the best he can with the language that he chooses” to help readers “relate to the horrors of it.” The vote to remove “Maus” from the eighth-grade curriculum was unanimous.

This book-banishing fervor is frightening. But for me, it has a thrilling subtext: Books are still deeply powerful things.

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Here we are in 2022, when most children carry Internet-delivery devices in their pockets, debating the potential danger of books.

One could argue politicians are just pathetically behind the times, trying to banish physical books (which, after all, can be removed from schools) even though today’s children are fully absorbed in the virtual world, as ungraspable and inescapable as the atmosphere.

But the sheer volume of new books on challenging and personally urgent topics argues otherwise. This supply wouldn’t exist without demand.

And oh, what a supply!

I read the lists of books under attack — Texas State Rep. Matt Krause’s 850-item list from his “inquiry” on school district content or the ones on the No Left Turn in Education website — and I am giddy at the options.

Look at all these books about racism! From “A is for Activist” to “What Does It Mean to Be White?” Books about gender, from “Ana on the Edge” to “Zenobia July.” If you’re a gay teenager in search of signs that you are not alone, you could read “All Boys Aren’t Blue” or “You Should See Me in a Crown and dozens of books in between.

Books about sex? Too many to count. But “Doing It: Let’s Talk About Sex” would have been super useful when I was a child and all I had was “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and my parents’ poorly hidden copy of “The Joy of Sex.”

So much has changed. The power of books has not.

Books are how I learned about sex (sort of) before having sex, how I learned about suicide, addiction, mental illness, war, child neglect. “Maus” is how I learned about the Holocaust in a way that no mere facts and figures could convey. What I craved in books was what no one would talk to me about in life. What I craved was no less than adulthood itself, the feeling that there was nothing I was not permitted to know.

And, yes, I also craved a satisfying resolution to Elizabeth Bennet’s romantic adventures. Offering a portal to uncomfortable truths isn’t the only thing books do well. But they do it better than anything else.

Unlike movies and TV and TikTok, books move at your pace. Unlike parents, books never lose their nerve when they set out to talk about something upsetting or personal; they aren’t embarrassed by your embarrassment. You can read books alone — or next to people who have no idea what you’re reading. You can reread a passage you don’t understand and close a book that upsets you.

Since the written word is a collaboration between writer and reader, books never show you what you cannot imagine. By definition, if you don’t understand a word, it cannot touch you. It waits for you to be ready. The child who reads “damn” and knows what it means has heard it before. The child who reads “damn” and doesn’t is … just fine.

The people who want to remove books from schools are trying to deny their children — and other people’s children — one of the safest, most reliable ways to grow up.

The books are still out there, though. Maybe teens in Tulsa will end up passing around “All Boys Aren’t Blue” the way we used to pass around “Forever.” I checked: The Tulsa public library has two copies, but if you want one you’ll have to place a hold. “All copies in use,” it says. Some other children are reading them right now.